Thirteen

Laïsha and Kolyek
Pinea

At last I raised my head.  Simonos stood before me and raised outstretched arms to receive me.  I was almost too drained to rise.  But I did, we hugged, and he kissed my cheeks.  Behind him stood Euthymios.  I hugged him, too.  I was afraid to look at Laïsha, but finally I glanced at the bed.  No Laïsha.  She had moved to stand behind Euthymios.  She was leaning on Simonos and he on her.

The brothers left the house while Laïsha and I stood facing each other.  We were alone, and I was afraid.  And then we were hugging.  I don’t know how long we carried on.  First we stood and clutched and just sobbed at each other, and then we sat upon the bench.  When at last I could form the words I asked Laïsha to tell me how anyone could ever again trust hands to heal that had done the terrible things mine had done.

Her offense was the worse, she insisted, for she had actually attempted to kill someone.  Now she was a fugitive.  I had made no attempt to kill, yet two had died in my presence within the past few weeks.  I merely harbored a secret concerning their fates, and that secret, which was now entrusted to these three friends, protected me from the wrath of others, wrath I did not deserve.

My greater regret, I told her, leaning my forehead against hers, was that I had lied.

“You feared me as I did you,” Laïsha discerned.  “You simply talked too much, and in order to talk you had to lie.”

“I’ll never lie to you again,” I promised.  “Never.”

“You talk too much,” Laïsha repeated.

Without our noticing, Simonos returned to stand behind us.  He interrupted our meditations.  “My feet hurt, Friend Physician.  Can you tend them now?”

And Laïsha added: “My side hurts, too, Kolyek.  Can you make me a flummery?”

I busied myself with these cares and setting some roots to simmer on the stove with a fresh fowl.  After that, I pulled some hides from the loft and from the walls and laid them about on the floor, the better to provide warmth for healing feet.  When at last I grasped the time of day, it was late afternoon.  All conversation has ceased for a time, and I, with head bowed and saying as little as was necessary, was tending to my sufferers.

At last Euthymios approached me.  “How do you feel?”

“Like a hollow reed.  There’s nothing left inside.”

“Nothing?” Euthymios asked.

“Nothing.”

“No peace?  No freedom?”

I tried to feel inside the empty straw that walked around the house at this hour dispensing medical care.  There was no emotion there.  I told him so.

“But Kolyek, you aren’t finished.”

“Oh, yes I am!” I said surely.

“No,” Euthymios repeated, gently.  “Kolyek, you have cleansed yourself of the sin.  And I for one find you beyond reproach, because you acted out of fear when things went badly that were beyond your control.  But now that those things that filled you with fear are gone, you are empty.”

“I’ve told you so.”

“Then what shall you put inside to replace it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you believe that I love you?”

I stared at him.  Somehow I knew what he meant.  I shrugged.

“You are a good person, Kolyek, full of hope and caring.  Do you believe that I can love that in you?”

“Yes.”

“Then if I, who am a sinner, Kolyek, can love you, think how much more God loves you, he who made you and seeks you to be his own.  For his love is perfect, where mine is but the love of an imperfect man.”

“I see.”

“This room is filled with love for you, Kolyek.  Will you claim it?”

I looked around.  Simonos soaked his feet in a bowl I had prepared for him.  “‘He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed,’” said the little monk.

Laïsha had just changed her clothes behind her curtain and now sat on the edge of the bed combing her hair with the pigskin brush.  I had always understood that women never tend to their appearance in the presence of men, and yet Laïsha had done so openly before me, and now before these others also.  (I could only guess, but over the course of time such demonstrations before a man might be misconstrued as attempts to tantalize him, and thus a custom was born.)  Slaves were usually denied the opportunities to fuss over themselves at all.  Yet Laïsha, a woman and recently a slave, was obviously accustomed to minding her image, probably because of her station as servant to the merchant’s wife.

She already knew that I spurned many social conventions, and so she would readily ignore such prohibitions around me, trusting in her wretched condition to confute any notion that she wished to be provocative.  Yet now she ignored the same rules of behavior before the other two men in the house, and they seemed to disregard her display as well.  In any event, I would have said nothing that would repress her.  She was free to do as she pleased in my home.

The two in my care had been listening to Euthymios and me, and now they looked at me with silent smiles.  Laïsha’s terrible nausea of the previous days had all but left her, and the relief showed.

“I can feel the love,” I acknowledged slowly, trying not to let it in too quickly, for, as with a stomach empty and starving, I feared that it would hurt if I accepted too quickly anything to fill my void.

“Do you love me?” Euthymios pressed further.

“I have to understand it.”

“Don’t try too hard to understand it, Kolyek, for love is a gift from God freely given to those who claim it.  And if you are loved, don’t you, in return, want to love him who loves you — as you did Sadruk, who loved you?”

“I’d want to,” I agreed.

“Would it be easier if you started with Laïsha?”

I stared at her.

“When you love somebody, you’d do anything for him.”  Euthymios paused.  “Or for her.”  He seemed to be narrating my thoughts at this point.  “You hurt when she hurts, you worry when you’re apart, you want to bring her gifts and to wait upon her.  You listen for her bidding and eagerly do anything she asks.  You feel as though you can’t do enough for her, and, when she thanks you, you protest that what you’ve already done is far too little.”  He paused once more.  “Isn’t this the way you’ve come to feel about Laïsha?”

She still watched me, smiling that smile of total acceptance.

“Yes,” I said softly, turning back to look at Euthymios’s feet.  “That’s the way I feel about her.”

“Have you told her as much?”

“No.”

“Do you want to tell her?”

“Yes.”

“Before you do, think of it not as the love of a man for a woman, but as the love of one person for another person.  That may make it easier.”  He paused.  “Now, if you wish, tell her.”

I tried to look at Laïsha, and at last my eyes settled on her hands, which now rested on her knees.  That wasn’t looking high enough, though, I realized.  I had already laid my soul out like a doormat.  Nobody had stepped on it.  Now I was about to lift it and let everyone see underneath.  What did it hide?  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing was left.  My eyes climbed her chest and paused at her pale neck, then over her chin, which I now saw was slightly askew.  I paused again at her front teeth, the one a little shorter than the other.  They were plainly in view because she was smiling.  I found her eyes, looking large and dark against her pallid but clean face.  Her cheeks were tense, and as our eyes met she bit her lip, which pulled her jaw aside even more.

I took a step in her direction, pulled the stool before her, and I said, quietly: “I love you, Laïsha-Marhya.”  As one person to another? I asked inside myself.  Or man-to-woman?  It wasn’t clear to me then, but little did it matter, for I had simply come to love her, and whether it were romantic or Godly love was something I could sort out later.

“I love you, Kolyek,” she said quietly.

“Why do you love her, Kolyek?” Euthymios asked.

I didn’t have to think about this one.  “Because she needed me.  She was so vulnerable, and she accepted my care-giving.”  I could have gone on, but Euthymios was on a quest.

“And why do you love him, Laïsha?”

She spoke slowly, quietly, but with assurance.  “Because he cared for me without seeming inconvenienced by it, without seeking anything in return.  At first I couldn’t have loved him, because I was suspicious.  But now I see that even his elaborate tales were constructed to protect me.”

“So you love him, man-to-man, can we say?”

“Yes.”  Laïsha smiled.

“Do you accept her love, Kolyek?  It is freely given.”

“Yes.”

“Now are you empty inside?”

“No.”  I think I smiled a little here.

“Good.  Let us go on.  So you came to love her because she needed you, as a helpless child needs a mother, and she loves you because you would do anything for her.  Now, do you accept my love, Kolyek?”

“Yes.”

“Why do I love you?”  Maybe Euthymios knew, but I didn’t.

“Because I needed you?” I suggested.

“That’s part of it, but enough for the moment.  Do you love me?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because… I see in you the love of God.”

“Kolyek!  Not so fast!  But you thrill me to say that!  So if I love you because you needed me, and you are returning my love because I cared for you without reservation, then why does God love you?”

“We need him.”

“As a chick needs the hen, as a child needs its mother.  And the mother can’t help but respond to that need.  The mother loves the child whom she created and who needs her.  She feels great tenderness for the child.  Such tenderness and hope God feels for you.  He offers you his love, and he has placed it in you at birth so that you can offer it back as well.  When you and God reach out to one another in love it becomes a bond between you, just as the love you share with a friend is a bond.  We all have the capacity to love, for God has placed that ability into each and every human being, even the feeble-minded.  But witness how easily it becomes overshadowed by our fears and our selfishness.  Still, God reaches out, and when suddenly you realize that you’re loved, you want to return that love, and so you do anything you think will please the one who loves you.”

“I understand.”

Euthymios continued: “And that explains the love I have for God.  I know I’m loved by him whose love is the highest to be prized.  And knowing that I’m loved by him overwhelms me.  I can’t do enough for my Father, who is in paradise.”  He paused.  “Are you still empty inside?”

“No.”

“Now, what about peace?”

“I have opened myself to your love,” I assured Euthymios.

“Have you opened yourself to God’s love?”

“Not really, I guess.”

“Will you try to, in good time?”

“I’ll try.”

“Then in a few days we’ll discuss peace.”

“I love to watch Euthymios work,” Simonos told Laïsha, as if his brother weren’t present to hear the remark.

“Back to one thing,” Euthymios directed.  “You love Laïsha because she needs you.  Did you also love Davnoy?”

“No,” I answered honestly.

“Because he didn’t need you?”

“I can’t say why.  He was nobody to me.”

“That’s fair.  But, do you know that God loved him?  He needed God, didn’t he?  For if he had loved God, he would have led a different life and might be alive today.  Knowing that God loved him too, we have a job to do.  Tomorrow we shall conduct a memorial ceremony to commend his soul to God’s mercy.  We must do the same for Sadruk.  After that, Friend Kolyek, we shall see about peace.”

I expected that I would now feel uncomfortable around Laïsha.  But somehow it came naturally to both of us to behave toward one another with solicitous formality.  It was as if I desired nothing else in life but to attend her needs, and she wanted to assist me in everything and at the same time to assure me that my ministrations were having the utmost effect.

On this evening, while the brothers were on one of their frequent walks outside to test Simonos’s feet, I spent a brief time studying and tending to Laïsha’s chest wound.  First I washed it carefully to remove flaked skin and crusted body fluids which still oozed from it.  I wanted her to understand why I did certain things to her, since it was her body.  I told her some of what I know about blood — that it runs freely throughout the body and bathes the organs, that it dries when it is exposed to air, just as root crops dry in the air, that blood runs thicker if a person consumes large quantities of salt or spices and that it runs thinner when someone is warmed or eats warm food.  I told her that the heart appears to be the organ where blood is made and then is pumped to all the parts of the body, where it is turned into meat and flesh.

I finished washing her wound and dried it with a clean rag.  Then I pressed her chest firmly with my fingers, beginning in a wide circle around the injury and working toward the center.  For the first time, as I was doing this maneuver, she giggled.  I tried it again, and again she giggled.  Then we giggled together and embraced spontaneously.  There was an upsurge of affection between us as we hugged, (and I enjoyed a new consciousness of desire as my hands pressed her bare back in the embrace).  I think much of our ease with one another was rooted in the relief that we both felt for having unmasked and exposed ourselves so.  We could be friends now, although I could not comprehend how she could forgive both the grave misdeeds I had done as well as the lying.

Yet I did not doubt her forgiveness.  I only marveled at it.  Soon, as I continued to feel her ribs, pressing closer and closer to the visible wound, I touched a point that gave her pain.  When first she winced I was stricken with panic, that I had harmed her, or so she would perceive.

But no.  “It’s all right,” She assured me.  “If you need to know, it does hurt there.”  Then she laughed.

I continued my probing until I had delineated the area that I thought was still undergoing healing.  As I proceeded I explained my method to Laïsha.  I wanted to fix in my mind where she now felt pain so that I could tell, when I would once again examine her in the ensuing days and weeks, how her healing was progressing.  I knew already that I had pressed firmly and safely on places where my touch had previously caused her to recoil in agony.  But I hadn’t been observant before, and couldn’t gauge her progress as I now wished to do.  To help my examinations to follow, I delineated the painful zone by drawing a rough circle onto her chest using soot that I kept in a jar.  The mark would remain for a few days and then I would repeat the test.

At last I lightly touched the wide, raised triangle of new pink and red skin that covered the wound on her right flank.  To my surprise she didn’t feel a light touch at all.  For comparison I touched her left side in the same place and she wriggled away laughing.  What tickled her there she felt not at all on the right side.  I didn’t dare to press deeply against the new skin, for I knew that pressure applied there would hurt, and I didn’t trust the skin to be strong against the point of a finger.

“Do you care to try a deep breath?” I asked her.

“Often I have tried.  But it will not come.  I’m sorry.”

At last my examination was done and I found myself as before staring boldly at her chest, bared but for the band of light cloth that covered her breasts.  I looked up to her face, and she gave me a look of utter trust.  I wanted to stare for minutes longer — her breasts were much more loosely wrapped than originally, and their curves commanded my eyes.  I did look back down at them, but she clenched her elbows and drew her forearms over her chest.  Her expression implored me to give her credit for a little modesty.  So I did something that took me completely by surprise: I bent close to her wound and kissed the center of it.  Immediately I closed and fastened the upper part of her garment.  In my soul I knew that the kiss was a gesture of caring, even if medically useless.  I wanted so dearly to see her healed.  As we sat facing each other her look went from astonishment to love to a blush and then to practicality as she set about rearranging our sleeping situation.

The brothers returned, moved their things to my loft, and prepared their beds there.  I took the floor beneath Laïsha’s bed, which still stood next to the stove.

<Table of Contents> <Twelve> <Fourteen>  <People and Places>

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Twelve

The Dregovichian Hunter and the Pig
Perenemansk and Pinea

“There are things I have to tell,” I said when I could make myself talk.

“Wait first, please.”  It was Simonos.  “I think we must give some thought to the things that —” he stumbled for a name “— that Marhya-Laïsha has said.  See how she sighs with relief after her confession?  ‘A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.’”

Euthymios agreed.  “Laïsha?”

“Please call me that.”

“We were in and around Drizha for a number of weeks before advancing here,” Euthymios told us, “and there we met with many of the citizens.  It was not a pleasant town, and I did not feel our Master’s favor upon the place.  Nevertheless, we established a small congregation as a part of the church of our Master, and one day we will go back to see how it fares.  We left Drizha for a few days and traveled to a Tokharian settlement nearby, for Drizha seems to be on the route of many nomads who settle for a time in the steppe around the town.  When we returned to Drizha, we heard of this Raznoy.  Simonos knows what happened better than I.”

“A man by that name came to Drizha,” Simonos continued the explanation, “and lodged with a friend, apparently the same one with whom you and Davnoy stayed.”  He nodded toward Laïsha.  “The people said there was an argument between the guest, Raznoy, and the host.  Raznoy accused the host of lying about the whereabouts of his brother, who would be your very Davnoy.  Raznoy’s assertion was that the people of Pinea and nearby did not see him.  The people of Drizha did, and freely acknowledged that they had.  The houses in the woods between the two towns, yours, evidently, Kolyek, and Polotnoy’s, denied any knowledge of him.  The host in Drizha was affronted by the accusation.  Raznoy took out his sword, the host his ever-present ax.  Raznoy now lies in the care of a medicine woman there, and his host is badly wounded.  Raznoy will almost certainly lose an arm.  Yet even if he survives, they may execute him.  He had a guard of two men with him, and those of his guard have disappeared.  But of the brother, Davnoy, no one could tell, once he had left Drizha.”

It gave me small comfort.  Polotnoy, too, had lied about seeing the traveling couple.  He was shrewd.

“I cared not for Raznoy, either,” Laïsha said to no one in particular.

I appreciated Simonos’s advice, that we pause to think about Laïsha’s history.  In some ways I wanted desperately to be alone with her, to reassure her that her past in no way diminished her worth to me.  But what would she care of her worth to me once she learned of the death and desecration that had taken place by my hands?

So, now it was my turn to talk.

I asked the others whether I might be forgiven if I took a walk outside.  It was all right with them.

Once out in the open I wished that we could all take a walk together.  I trudged through some patches of thin moss that lay before the house and shuffled across newly bared ground, re-tracing the steps I had taken in the accomplishing of so many of the unseemly deeds I’d done.  I stood, dejected, at the edge of the brush pile.  I walked to the sand bank behind the house that had been my master’s grave.  I walked to the road and back.  At last I went behind the house and even paused where Yomo, the sow, had fallen after taking an iron rod through her windpipe.

Back inside I met the scent of incense and found Euthymios and Laïsha once again engaged in prayer.  Simonos hobbled toward me, when I entered, and drew me down to kneel at the bench inside my door.

“If you pray before you speak, you may know peace in your heart like never before, even as you tell what you have to say.  This minute, Laïsha prays for that very peace for you.  I cannot describe it, but if you wish to be happy even though you are burdened, you should ask God to grant you his peace.”

And so, to an unseen power, that seemed distinct from other gods chiefly in being benign, I prayed.  Simonos mumbled for several minutes in Greek, and I in turn translated to my own tongue and repeated what I could from what he said.  I believed, at least for part of the prayer, that I was talking to someone who listened.

When I had finished, Euthymios motioned me to sit before the stove.  “Laïsha has a request of you,” He said.  I turned to her.

“Forgive me — please, Kolyek?”

“You have committed no offense toward me, Dear Laïsha.”

“I have offended all of mankind.”

Somehow images came to mind that I did not summon: this sickly woman giving birth prematurely to a dead child, the attempt to murder, the slave being set free by the master’s wife, the woman’s thought to murder again…  These were offenses against all of mankind?  These were the grievous sins that she had committed?

“I have been unwise not to trust you,” she said, “and therefore I have kept things from you that you had every reason to know.  Yet, at first, when I was at my worst, I saw the hope of escape from my past, but only if you did not know me or whom to contact in regard to me.  You deserved more trust, and I denied you that.”

I extended first one arm, then two.  She rose and walked between them, and for the first time in my life I embraced a woman of my own age in true affection.

“So you see, Father Euthymios and Father Simonos,” said Laïsha, when, reluctantly, we had released each other, “even though we masqueraded as husband and wife, and slept together when others were present, in order to maintain the pretense, we have been discreet with one another.  What I have told you earlier is much more serious than lying together in sleep, and I have made my resolve not to resort to such dishonesty again.”

“Please sit,” Simonos asked everyone then.  Almost as if anticipating a minstrel, they took their places.  Laïsha would have had me sit beside her on the bed, but instead I drew toward me the bench from beside the door and rested on it.

I began with my past, that I was born a Dregovichian near the source of the Neman River.  I spoke about the stigma my birth had caused my mother, about outliving that curse, and about the horror of watching my brother drown.  That foolish venture, however, had been a show of enough bravery (or foolhardiness) to get me invited into the hunt the next autumn.

From that time in my youth and thereafter I was raised to be a hunter, and about six years before the present time I had come into Ukraina, the frontier between the ulus, or tribal lands, of the north and the civilizations to the south, with a party of my people on a year-long hunting expedition.

We had ranged far on this hunt, because the region of the upper Neman was being plundered more and more by hungry Varangians.  In addition, the area had been charred by a forest fire lasting for several weeks in the late summer and autumn just before our departure, driving wild game far from our grasp.  What was to be a seasonal laying-in of meat and furs became an ordeal of never-ending travel for me and for dozens of my kinsmen.

We sought brown bear furs and sable and ermine, and anything of worth that we could kill.  The bears we ate ourselves.  We found elk and beaver and sent their quartered carcasses quickly northward, cooled enough by the chill autumn air to assure their freshness for a few weeks.  We were a silent party, not interested in pillage or trouble.  We kept away from the towns, as attractive as some were from a distance.

I had been a good hunter up to about my fourteenth year.  After the first year’s hunt I remained with the unmarried men of the group and spent a leisurely and irresponsible summer with them fishing on a lake I knew not where, listening to the men brag about elk with broad antlers and women with broad hips.  The autumn of our third expedition I was just entering my fifteenth year and my reputation was secure, but for reasons I couldn’t then explain, I knew privately that my skill was failing.  Nevertheless, I set out with my party, and had some early success.  Older men and simpletons accompanied us for the purpose of transporting our bounty homeward, so I expected that if I failed miserably as a hunter, later in the trip, I could return as a bearer.

But the smaller squad that I was usually with included the leader of the whole expedition, and when he saw my mounting failures he became angry and challenged me with ever harder shots at game.  When I could hit nothing at all with arrow, stone, or spear, he took my weapons from me and stalked away.

I squinted always anyway, but when I reached this point in my reflections I made slits of my eyelids and looked from Euthymios to Simonos to Laïsha-Marhya.  They appeared to find the face I made amusing but it didn’t convey any information to them.  I had to explain: “I can’t see.  As a young hunter I was going blind.”  Euthymios, leaning forward, began rocking in position as if nodding that he understood.

I continued the story of my separation from the hunters.  I knew I was to consider myself abandoned when the leader had confiscated my weapons, and I stayed overnight where he’d left me, making a camp for myself at the confluence of a stream and a river, (the stream across the road from my present house and the river that runs by Gonashi’s pasture).

The next day I set out thinking to offer to rejoin my party as a bearer, but they had moved on.  They’d gone south, I knew, so I tried to follow.  Within a day, of course, I grew hungry.  I realized that I could too soon become lost, for south of this place I had not been before.  At least, with some luck, I could retrace my route homeward.  If I had gone southward another couple of days I would have come to the open steppe, but how could I have known?  In fact, my hunting companions must also have reached the steppe, and probably then had turned westward.

I was near despair when I found the road that passed Sadruk’s house, and Gonashi’s, and began walking east and north, toward Pinea.  The hunters had not used the road, of course, but now I headed homeward by way of this road.  I thought of what would await me there.  I would be ridiculed as a failed hunter and would be left to join the ranks of the simpletons and the desperately poor.  I had known of blind beggars, the most pathetic people I could imagine. And I shuddered to think of returning home only to become one myself.  At best, I could hope to live like my uncle Zhukin, already old, already ridiculed, already poor.

I continued into Pinea that day, after a stop at Gonashi’s house to beg food, and even though still starving and dirty, I presented myself with dignity to the magistrate as exactly what I was, an outcast hunter with poor vision, far from home in the northern forests.  I offered to apprentice myself to anyone anywhere he would direct me to go.

The magistrate himself, a man about ten years older than I, took me to his house and cleaned me and fed me.  He already had a slave and a paid servant, who, along with his family were all that he could feed, so even though he might have wanted to keep me to serve him, he could not, for he was not rich.  Instead, he told me of a couple of possible opportunities.  Bugra-dezhu, the old spell-casting diviner of Pinea, wanted an apprentice.  But the magistrate discouraged that course.  Instead, he sent a messenger to summon Sadruk, a different kind of physician, from his house deep in the woods.  Sadruk, already an older man, but with a son, Drukov, arrived late in the evening.  Appearing irate, he nevertheless welcomed the free service of a youth like me.  We spent half the night returning to his distant home, and we conversed without pause on the journey, which kept predators at bay while helping us pass the time and affording ample opportunity to become acquainted.

It was on this walk, using a road that Sadruk could follow in near-darkness, so familiar was he with it, that I learned of his parents’ origins in Bulgária.  His father, Agaruk, had run away from home during some violent upheaval in his homeland, joined with other families fleeing that unrest, and moved into the forest as far as this stream outside Pinea.  They had built huts, cleared some land (now reclaimed by the forest), and had grown some meager crops.  A girl of one such family, Ghia, later became  Agaruk’s wife, Sadruk’s own mother, and here Agaruk had built this house.

I learned a little of Sadruk’s own youth in these woods, collecting rocks, experimenting with insects.  He told me of his fascination with the Varangians who were bringing excitement into the region.  As a young man not wanting to miss that excitement, he left his parents to move into the village where he took a wife.  It was during one brutal winter in Pinea, several years later, when Sadruk’s wife died and his own father as well.  Sadruk and his son, Drukov, moved out to his  family home here by the stream.

The other Bulgárians had drifted on by then and the house stood alone.  Leaving Drukov with Ghia, the boy’s grandmother, Sadruk had gone off for his education-of-sorts in the mountains north of Greece and then returned to begin his work as a physician in the forest until such time as the dangerous old wizard of Pinea, Bugra-dezhu, might die.  And then, perhaps, Sadruk could move into the village as a proper physician.  To his great sorrow, Ghia became ill and did not live through another winter after Sadruk returned from the south.

+ + +

In the shadow of all his losses, Drukov was a happy, smart boy a little younger than I.  He quickly attached himself to me, a wild, wandering youth who had lived off the land since my boyhood.  I readily showed off all my knowledge of creatures and weather, foraging and inventing.  Since his knowledge was also about secrets of the forest — its herbs and other remedies, we found it great fun to share information.  While I quickly grew into a tall young man much hardened by my travels, though, Drukov was small like his father and was more at ease on his knees gathering leaves from ground plants near his home than wrestling a wounded deer in an icy stream.

Sadruk saw me first as a substitute for a wife, in cooking and housekeeping, that is.  But I showed such an interest in his fascinating skills that he took me as an apprentice, which the magistrate had foreseen even before Sadruk did.  Since I had made sure that I was a good housekeeper and a better cook, Sadruk found no reason to deny my additional desire.

My presence in the home made it possible for Drukov to get his wish.  After witnessing his mother’s prolonged suffering, he too wanted to become the best physician that he could be, but Sadruk would have been torn at the heart to let him go to Greece to study medicine and logic with the great teachers.  My apprenticeship to Sadruk, after a year of humble servitude, gave him the companionship and purpose to carry on at home and let his son go at the age of sixteen.  Two and a half years had passed since then and Drukov had returned once, just last summer, with reports that things were going splendidly well.

Then, perhaps because of my growing confidence as a healer, things began to grow worse for me again.  I had learned to copy Sadruk’s handwriting and to copy labels for medicine jars.  What I hadn’t learned so well was to identify dried, pulverized leaves and match their identity with their fresh counterparts.  One day, a few months past, Sadruk had discovered a serious error — serious, serious error, he repeated — in the way I had labeled a jar.  He dumped the contents onto the floor, and then, worse for me, he wept.

A few days later we started again at the beginning — five years of training lost, he kept mumbling, although I disagreed that the loss was total.  We had some fun for a while reviewing my learning, and I proved myself once more.

My confidence restored, I accepted a sufferer for treatment in Sadruk’s absence one day, a young man with sore throat and nausea.  I began with an infusion of dried philanthropos leaves steeped in hot water, which I instructed him to gargle once it had cooled sufficiently. By the time Sadruk returned the next afternoon I had treated the sufferer well, and together we sent him home, but I had contracted the disease that I had set out to drive away.

Sadruk prescribed for me a series of remedies, mostly brews to be consumed warm and with haste.  (Due to their general foulness of flavor I declined as often as I dared without offending him, preferring to endure the passing symptoms.)  Thus Sadruk treated me, and then, as I was recovering, he, too, was stricken.

Once under the power of this illness, my master applied the same regimen of herbs and minerals to himself.  He began his day of suffering with hyssop for breathing.  A while later he took a tea of ground thistle brewed with wormwood for fever and general listlessness.

The next preparation he called “the cure.”  It was convincingly bad-tasting, ugly to behold, and had a suitably immediate effect on everyone who submitted to it.

“The cure” was one of the truly effective treatments for symptoms of general malaise, even though it had to be repeated regularly until the sufferer’s body was sufficiently fortified that the spirit of the illness relented and sought another body to occupy, preferably that of a nuisance woodland creature.  It was not as complex a medicine as he pretended, but it was his favorite treatment for the townspeople.  He first made a paste of hot water infused with beets and the dried roots of polypody, gathered from under an oak.  This was to cleanse the bowels and expel tapeworms, if present.  But this material was of such a repulsive sweetness that he always combined it with a brew of centaury bitters and fennel, given to aid digestion, promote appetite, and stimulate blood grown sluggish over the winter.

One day Sadruk asked me to prepare the cure for him, and he watched me at every step.  As it cooled a little, though, he asked me to add salt.  I had done the same for myself once, when I was forced (by humility) to drink the cure Sadruk had made for me.  But I had several vials of salt that I have modified for specific purposes.  One of those included crushed Gangavadi seed that a traveler in Pinea had recently sold me to be blended in very small quantities with salt, due to its bitterness, and it was sure to induce overall liveliness and a desire to become very active.  I thought this would help Sadruk.  Occasionally I would dip a moistened fingertip into this little jar and then lay a few granules of this secret salt onto my tongue, to give me courage for spending a long day working outdoors, for example.

Sadruk had apparently found, as I had, that a little bit of plain salt lent a familiar flavor, almost like that of decaying meat, making the cure somehow less offensive, to my tongue anyway.  The salt modified with Gangavadi seed would help the flavor the same way, I said inside myself.

Sadruk watched approvingly as I sprinkled salt into his cure, but neither did he see which jar I had drawn it from nor did he even know of my new compound.  When I took it to him where he sat on a stool next to the simmering stove, a blanket over his shoulders, he sipped, adjusted his seat, mumbled some comments, sipped a few more times while mumbling, and then, all at once he glared at me in astonishment, his eyes changing from fear to loathing as he began to choke on the brew.  I rushed forward to help him, of course, but he writhed away, certain that I had poisoned him.

Still he choked, and then lost his breath altogether.  As he shot rigidly upward, I took the cup from him and drank its dregs to show him it was not as he believed, but he must have thought I was trying to kill myself also.

He died very quickly without regaining his breath.  And so I had to bury him.  I don’t know what caused me to scream inside myself more: that I was in serious trouble or… or that I had tortured and killed the only person in the world who loved me.

If I confessed his death, and especially any involvement in it, then surely I would be sentenced to die.  So I made up the story of his current journey to Bulgária and possibly even to Greece.

+ + +

I paused in my story and regarded my hearers.  They stared at me in silence, but with intent interest.

“Sadruk and I had a sow, Yomo, which was really his pet and companion,” I went on.  “Together they took walks and he fed her well.  She enjoyed the equivalent of a place at the table, for always there was a portion for her.  After Sadruk died, Yomo became upset, or so I deduce.  She often escaped.  On the day that Laïsha landed in my care, Yomo had again escaped, you see.”

I stopped and looked at them again.  “The telling is going to get very difficult for me here, so please give me your patience,” I begged them, “and your hearts.”  I leaned far forward on the bench, and at times rubbed my palms on my own ankles as I talked.

So at last I told everything about Yomo’s final escape and Davnoy’s death and how I’d dealt with that.  I told it all: of the things I had found on Davnoy and hidden in my lintel, of finding his neck ornament, of wanting to leave before Drukov’s return but being now held back, and happily so, by Laïsha’s dependence on me.  I even confessed my interest in seeing Laïsha undressed, necessary as it had been.  I don’t know when I began crying, nor how long it took to tell.  But I ended in sobs of relief, caring not whether I went now to my own death at the sentencing of the magistrate.  I only hoped to look up and see anything but hatred in Laïsha’s face.

<Table of Contents> <Eleven> <Thirteen>  <People and Places>

Eleven

Marhya and Abru
Kiev and Pinea

Laïsha rose from the bed that morning, and sat with the brothers and me at my workbench, which also served as a table, and the four of us enjoyed a jolly time at breakfast.  Simonos had been entrusted on the journey with a block of sweet beeswax, and the remainder of this was divided among us against Laïsha’s protests and mine, for even though we both craved such a delicacy, it did not seem right to take it from those whose journey it made happier.  But we shared it just the same, and Simonos even argued that he could taste the treat in spite of his nose and throat malaise, which Sadruk would have called the “blockage.”

After we had finished, Euthymios stood ready to intervene as  Laïsha wobbled back to the bed and I made ready to see again to Simonos’s feet.  But he waved me aside, for there were other plans in their minds.  While Simonos ignited a brown nugget he called incense in order to fill the house with a sweet-smelling thread of smoke, Euthymios sat Laïsha on the side of the bed and drew a log up for a stool.  He motioned for me to join them.

“Kolyek, Kind Physician, I am sure you have treated your Laïsha very well.”  At this Laïsha smiled at me with a look of such kindness that it sent an uncommon warmness through me.  Euthymios went on: “I would do nothing that would diminish the effect of your ministrations.  But I think you would find the power of faith to be a dimension in your profession that you’ll want to consider.”

“I have given some thought to what you offered last night,” I said, “and I am not affronted.  I want to see the day that Laïsha can again stand erect and breath freely.  If there is a power to be called upon of which I know nothing, let me witness its effect.”

“It may not have an instantaneous effect, Kolyek.  God heals us according to our faith, yes, but also according to his own ways that we cannot comprehend.  All I ask, Kind Lady, is that you tell me you have faith in the healing power of God, given through his Spirit for the sake of Yeshua, Christos, to those who would receive it.”

“I am aware of this god,” Laïsha answered frankly, “the god of the Jews.  Always I have heard of various gods, but have derided them in my mind.  Now I am asked to call upon one, in faith, to hasten my healing.  If this god exists, I have offended it already.  Why would it hear me now?”

“Your offenses were forgiven before you were born.  For our sins and for those of all who would trust in him our Master and our God, Yeshua, the Christ, suffered death upon a cross.”

“I have heard of Yeshua, a prophet of ancient times, and one too gentle to take up a sword against his enemies,” Laïsha commented knowledgeably.

“Ancient, it is true.  It has been over eight hundred years since God walked this earth in the person of his son.  But you cannot dismiss the fact that people who lived then were just as real as people today.  And this prophet, as you know him, was not so kind as he was wise, for instead of the sword, he taught love for one’s enemies, a more potent weapon than any object that fits a soldier’s hand.  Friend Laïsha, there has always been only one God.  Others of which you’ve heard and in which you’ve lost faith are created by people.  The true God offers you healing, and much, much more, but he requires your faith.  Do you believe?”

Laïsha sighed, winced, and waited.  Then she looked up and said: “I believe.  I believe because I want there to be such a god.”

“You must trust without reservation.  You must not suspect that it can be any other way,” Euthymios counseled.

“You press me for total submission!”

“You must trust!  But trust not me.  Trust God to use me.”

“I shall trust God,” Laïsha said confidently.

“Then pray with me.”  And with this, Euthymios knelt beside his stool, leaned toward Laïsha, and gripped her head.  He said some words in Greek, and then spoke for several minutes in our Slavonic tongue, often making precise gestures in the air with one or both of his hands.

As soon as Euthymios stopped I could not recall the things he had said, but the assurance and the faith those words carried were more heartening than anything I’d ever heard before.  When he abruptly stopped praying he lowered his hands and then excused himself to go into the corner where he had prayed the night before.

Simonos was smiling.  Laïsha stared into the wall.  I sat meekly, awaiting a cue from somebody.  At last Laïsha turned to me and mimicked a shrug.  She lay back down while I assisted her.

“Is it…?” I began.

“It’s just the same,” she said quietly.

Later that morning I gave Euthymios some information about Pinea.  We talked about the citizens, the site of the town, the few people who, as I, lived along the road and elsewhere in the woods about.  He wanted to know all he could about the young magistrate, whom he called the archon.  “It baffles me why God would choose such an outpost,” he said, “with so few people so far from, if you’ll excuse the apparent insult, ‘civilization.’  But we will seek believers and start a church here.  I hope there is someone in whose capable hands we can leave the congregation’s leadership once it is time for us to move on.  But we will not be defeated by doubts and foot problems.”

I tended Simonos’s feet, finally.  They were much improved, although we did not discuss the reason, whether my treatment of him or whether his own prayers had been responsible.  Thus the thought took form, that faith was another key element in the process of healing, along with proper medicine, determination, and a calm, conducive atmosphere.

Once again, later in the afternoon, Euthymios prayed with Laïsha.  Following this he was brooding.  The second night our sleeping arrangement was the same as the first.  The next morning his brooding was like a gloom, and even the bright sunshine pouring in from the open window did not dispel it.  He helped me with some chores outside the house while Simonos and Laïsha carried on some intellectual discussions inside.  Presently, when we all happened to be inside and assembled closely in one area, Euthymios said: “There is a spirit of concealment here.”  He looked from Laïsha to me.  “God will hear your prayers but will be confused by them, even though you have faith, if your heart is unclean.  For as I have said, Yeshua died to forgive those things which would make us unclean.  But we must claim that forgiveness.”

And so, as I sat on the edge of the bed with Laïsha propped erect beside me, we had a lesson in two concepts new to me: repentance and forgiveness.  Forgiveness I thought I understood already, in the sense that I was accustomed to being ridiculed by others for my poor eyesight, and I often even ridiculed myself for my procrastination and other such faults in my character.  Those who ridiculed me, I forgave.  I never suspected, though, that I had wronged anyone in my life — such that I should seek someone else’s forgiveness.  Even my master’s death, although arguably of my own doing, was not something for which I felt the need to be forgiven.  Repentance, an attitude of being sorry, of being humble before the offended and asking to be given a way to compensate for the offense, was an entirely new concept.

When the lesson was done I continued looking at the floor.  I thought of the look of kindness that Laïsha had cast upon me the previous day.  I thought about my own hope for this new method.  I thought about the logic in the idea that God can’t heal where there’s an unclean heart or a lack of faith — where a person is not honest with God.

I thought about my lies.  What should I do?  Of course I had never wanted to begin the fabrications in the first place, and often I had wished I could tell Laïsha that I’d been making it all up.  And I just might have succeeded in walking away soon and leaving it all behind, lies intact, if it hadn’t been for the rumored wolves, my unnamed feelings for Laïsha, and now this new god.

Yet how could anything I’d done dishonestly be an impediment to Laïsha’s healing?  That seemed unfair, so it must be some small thing in Laïsha’s heart that was unclean.  Even if I had things to hide, that didn’t alter the fact that in my humble house she had received the best medical care anywhere nearby.  I looked up from the floor ready to give them my most confident expression.  Laïsha met my gaze and for a long time we studied one another.  I had so often applied my skills to the healing of her facial abrasions that it made me not the least self-conscious to look directly at her as she regarded me in return.  And I realized that from this distance her face, although gaunt and missing most of the hair of her brows and lashes, appeared fully healed.  The light scratches were gone without a trace as was the bruise on her cheekbone.  And I could no more detect the larger cuts that had gone across the bridge of her nose and over her forehead.  Furthermore, to my distinct pleasure, I saw the faint shadow of fuzz returning to her eyebrows.  My visual examination turned to admiration for her femininity as I studied the angle of her nostrils and the pinkness of her lips.  At last I looked into her clear, green-brown eyes, and they looked willingly into my worthless blue ones.  We held one another’s eyes for a long, pleasant moment before her gaze slowly dropped.

Yet for all this that was pleasant to see, she was in another way the most pathetic sufferer that I had ever seen.  She sat on the edge of the bed, shoulders hunched, pale, her hair lifeless and once again dirty, her body thin, her entire being totally at my mercy.  She was a tiny wisp of suffering humanity which had not yet driven back death.

As I mentioned, I was prepared to give the brothers an expression of confident self-assurance.  But something in Laïsha’s returning beauty combined with her complete weakness touched me as never before, and there was nothing I would refuse to do to make her better.  If that meant confessing, even though she would despise me, then I saw that I must confess so that this god would absolve her of my sins.  For it must have been my sins that were oppressing her.  What could she have to hide?

My resolve thus weakened, I was about to open my mouth when Laïsha said, turning to Euthymios mid-way through the sentence: “We have slept together but are not married.”

There was a pause.

“That can be remedied,” an amused Simonos said finally, from his seat by the fire, in a voice that reminded me of a talking donkey.  “‘A wife of noble character is her husband’s crown, but a disgraceful wife is like decay in his bones.’”

“Brother!” Euthymios reprimanded him, as if there were insult in his words.  Turning back to Laïsha, he paused and then said: “You have done well to confess it, and you are forgiven, for you are repentant in the confession of it, but you must be determined not to persist in this sin.  My brother is right; we can perform with you the sacrament of marriage.”

Laïsha looked at me with apparent alarm, and I fear that my return look reflected the same emotion.  “We have only slept, mind you, Holy Father,” Laïsha tried to explain.  We could both tell that the distinction was unimportant to him.

“But I still discern a spirit of concealment present — not of things concealed from us,” Euthymios looked at each of us in turn, “but of things you have concealed from one another.”

I knew then that it had to be my lies, for if this man were gifted with such discernment, then a god — God himself — had to be enlightening him.  And I could only conclude that my wrongs, my sins as the brothers called them, were affecting the effect of my ministrations as a physician.  In my mind I could see Laïsha’s hand slipping symbolically from mine forever as I opened my mouth to speak.

Once again Laïsha spoke before me: “You are right, Friend Euthymios.  I have concealed much from many people, you and Kolyek among them.”  She looked at me, and her lip quivered.  “Oh, Kolyek!  You have been so kind, and I so suspicious of you!”

I turned on the bed and moved to sit nearer her, taking her hands.  Now she sobbed.

“I have hidden many things from you, Laïsha, even terrible things!” I told her.  Then for a minute we both talked at once, each insisting that the other listen first.

Finally, though, Euthymios intervened.  “What you have to tell, Friend Kolyek, can be told, but our lady has begun.  Will you agree to let her finish?”

Confused to imagine that she could have any secrets, I agreed.  Still, Euthymios held the interruption: “Do you prefer, Laïsha, to talk alone with Kolyek?”

“Do you bring our confessions before the magistrate?” she asked sincerely.

Simonos and Euthymios together denied that they would, and I wondered what could prompt Laïsha to wonder such a thing.

Euthymios assured her that her confession was between her, the person affronted by her sin, and God.  His rôle, he said, was to be God’s agent for absolution, reconciliation, and healing.

“I will tell all of you the truth about myself,” she began quietly.  “I have treated you and others very badly, and I have been dishonest.”

“It cannot be compared with the things I’ve done against you, and others,” I said.  I turned my head away in shame when I said this.  Laïsha loosed her hands from mine and straightened her back, in order to appear more formal.

“Before I came here, about five weeks ago, I was not known as Laïsha but as Marhya.  I am a Khazar, born of a wandering Persian father and a Varangian mother.  Well, he was a wandering Persian until about the time I was born, but he became a very powerful trader in Etil, where I was raised.”  Laïsha glanced expectantly at the two visitors.  They were both motionless and stared back with their mouths open.  “Etil,” she repeated, “near the Caspian Sea.  My mother has the white skin and fair hair of the Varangians, but I have my father’s blood for darkness.”  She looked at her hands and then smiled weakly.  “I have never before been this pale.”

The brothers became animated for a moment, and one of them asked, hesitantly: “Are you of the Jewish faith?”

Laïsha, or Marhya, answered: “No, although I was exposed to it all through my childhood.  My father, in his youth, became a trader, mainly in weapons and things made of metal but did poorly then.  Once he settled in Etil he became very influential in the managing of caravans.  He arranges the passage of all goods through the Khazar Kaganate of Nisi ben Menasseh.  Since Nisi is converted to Judaism, so are many in Etil.  But Vennamar, my father, is too proud and powerful to need gods.  If it suits his business, my father pretends to be Jewish.  But I was never taught its tenets.

“Years ago Vennamar had dealings with a certain wealthy merchant of Dneprokiev whose name is Abru.  Unfortunately, my father became deeply indebted to Abru, and risked losing all trading opportunities on the Dnepr River.  But he made an agreement to absolve his debts, and as part of that agreement I was given —” she shuddered as if a draft had blown across her “— I was given to Abru as a hostage, and ever since then I was used as a household slave.  This was three and a half years ago, and I was in my fourteenth year of age.

“I didn’t understand the arrangement very well at first.  I wondered: If Abru was to receive a slave as payment of a debt, why wasn’t any other slave just as valuable?  If merely a slave, why was I kept to the gentler tasks within the master’s house?  But I was a hostage, you see, and I think Abru was constrained to anticipate the day he might need to return me to my father.

“My mother was greatly upset with the deal, for we were close.  I have two younger sisters, and I still fear for their fate, knowing that my father is capable of using his children as collateral.  Actually, Abru’s house was a desirable home, and Abru’s principal wife was very kind to me.  She took me as her own servant.  Always our relationship was formal, but I was so grateful for being allowed into her chamber that I served her enthusiastically.  They had other slaves, and they also have two sons.  Raznoy, who was here a few days ago, is the older, and married.  Davnoy is the younger, a year younger than I.”

At the mention of these names, the brothers exchanged glances.  Laïsha and I both realized that they must know something.  She went on to explain that the names of the sons were intentionally numerical — Son-of-Abru-one (Raznoy) and Son-of-Abru-two (Davnoy), a custom among the merchant class, to stress before the world that here were people who knew how to manipulate numbers.

“I suppose I was beginning to accept my lot as a slave, but then a year ago, Davnoy forced himself upon me.”  Laïsha paused, but still looked at the floor.  Her eyes seemed to regard all of our feet.  “I did not want him, I did not encourage him, but I was now only a slave and could not refuse him.  Apparently I was chosen by his father and by his brother to ‘initiate’ him.

“Seven months later I gave birth to a lifeless, very tiny baby.”  Laïsha’s eyes reddened and glistened.  She gnawed her lower lip.  Straightening, perhaps in order to appear more in control, she added: “Abru’s wife was forbidden to attend to me during the birth, and I made a mess of the job with the help of a younger slave girl.”

She shook back the hair from over her eyes.  “Davnoy persisted with me anyway.”  Now she panned around at the faces of three silent men.  We waited.  “I had been raised a privileged girl, you understand.  I thought I would become a good wife for a good man of means.  I had learned much about the world and might even have learned some skill useful in commerce.  Being a slave was not so bad, though, until I saw my chance and dream to become such a wife plundered by the assaults of the rough and unkind Davnoy.

“And yet, he believed that he was not so unkind.  He bought me things, including clothes, that no slave could be expected to own.  I was flattered, of course, but worried that Abru, his father, might discover these new possessions of mine and that Davnoy would deny giving them to me.  Then I would be left alone to explain against Davnoy’s denials.”  Laïsha-Marhya paused and relaxed her posture.  Tentatively, she looked about at the rest of us, and then lowered her eyes to go on.

“I know that I was becoming a distracted and unhappy servant.  Strangely, too, I was being assigned to harder and harder work.  It’s not that I resist hard work.”  She held out her damaged but healed hands for a moment and rotated them before us.  “After I lost the baby, I was made to lay a paving of flat stones in Abru’s yard.  It was a punishment, and I don’t know for what.  But my hands will always remember.

“Finally, I went to Davnoy’s mother.  I feared to do it, for a merchant’s wife has little authority, and this one was loyal to her husband and sons in every way.  She knew that if either of her sons desired me, then she was helpless to intervene.  There was nothing she could do to persuade them, really.  But she told me to be strong because better days were coming my way.  I didn’t know what she meant.

“Abru’s wife had been nearly as heartbroken as I when the baby was lost.”  Again Laïsha looked at me for understanding.  I think I grasped her meaning: Even though it was Davnoy’s child, it was also his mother’s first grandchild.  I nodded.  Laïsha turned to the others: “Then they acquired a new slave girl, a large and unperturbable Varangian.  She was a gift from Kunedsi, the Varangian who pretends to rule Dneprokiev, but with Abru’s indulgence, and for whom Abru exacts the taxes.  I knew what had happened to my mother, also a slave in the house of my father in her childhood, and I expected the same might become of me: that I would become a second and secret wife to Davnoy, after he would first be married to one of his own people.  If I weren’t there, this could be the expected fate for the new slave girl of Abru.

“For many weeks I tried to resign myself to becoming Davnoy’s property.  And, I suppose that if I had been raised poor and without hope, I would have considered it a desirable fate.  But the boy is self-important beyond description, and although he has given me many fine things, he is also vicious.  He takes delight in killing people for imagined offenses, animals too.  This may be his right, but it upsets me.  And, as I’ve mentioned, I had greater ambitions than to become his silent property.

“Finally, I cared not for the consequences.  I poisoned Davnoy, or tried to.  It was his nighttime wine and I poisoned it with dried atropa berries, and he became very sick that same night.  But curiously, early the next morning, his mother rushed me to the river docks and placed me aboard a raft laden with furs, bound for the sea.  She said to me: ‘Poor Girl, the debt was repaid long ago,’ meaning that Abru should have turned me over to Vennamar some time ago.  The only other thing she said to me was something like: ‘May the wind god take you home.’  By this I concluded that she meant ‘home to Etil.’

“There are no caravans bound from Dneprokiev directly to Etil at this time of year, so she could not send me that way, and I doubt that she would have done so anyway, because I surely would not have survived a slow overland passage without the company of other women.”

Simonos said, without looking up from his ailing feet: “Caravan attendants have too much idle time and opportunity; you would have suffered.  And you would too easily have been caught.  On the river, the merchant’s wife was able to slip you away quickly, and communication is poor between the water and the land.”

“Still, it’s a wonder that you made it this far,” added Euthymios, oblivious to what he was yet to hear.

Laïsha continued: “The boatmen are a more trusted lot, even though rough and brutal among themselves.  I don’t know whether she paid a passage or bribed a boat hand, but I was gone that same hour.  She did give one of the boatmen a document, but I saw no money handed over.  This was about six weeks past.  I was well-treated on the raft, like a child, actually, the temper of which I assumed as a manner of self-defense.  I suspect that she warned them also that I was Davnoy’s property and that anyone who would touch me would answer to her son.

“I didn’t know what I would do, of course.  I could try to return to my father’s house, to Etil, my home city.  I had no instructions from the wife of Abru, but I understood that she was secretly giving me my freedom.  Evidently she deduced that she was soon going to lose my personal services when I would be taken away to satisfy her son, so if she was going to lose me, then she must have concluded that she may as well set me free.  I was free of slavery, then, if I could figure a way to protect myself all the way from the Black Sea to Etil by way of my father’s boats and caravans.

“The river passage was slow.  The raft often became lodged in ice and ran aground repeatedly, and the load was portaged many times.  Before it reached the seven rapids of the lower Dnepr, Davnoy hailed it from along the right bank, where he waited with an elegant carriage.  You see, the poisoning had not worked, and, even though he deduced what I’d done, he never told his mother or anyone else.  They knew only that he was very ill for a day.

“He persuaded the boat master that I was being recalled to Dneprokiev and that he was sent to retrieve me.  His authority to recall me exceeded his mother’s authority to release me.  So I was placed ashore in his care.  I think that he had stolen the carriage, a handsome one imported from Venezia or someplace, from his father’s stables, for he certainly would not otherwise have traveled that distance without the company of soldiers.

“He had brought the clothes along that he had bought for me, and insisted I dress like a lady.  He told me that, if I would do his bidding, that is, grant him willingly the favor of my body, then he would tell no one of my attempt to kill him.  I might as well say that it became my intention to attempt it again, and before he could succeed in bringing me all the way back to his home.”

Laïsha turned sharply to me.  “I had no such urge to harm you, Master Kolyek,” she professed.  It struck me as a curious thing that she called me master, after denying any intention to let herself be cast in that rôle under Davnoy.

She breathed deeply and then went on: “Soon after we left the shore of the river we came upon a band of Magyars traveling westward.  Davnoy pretended to befriend them, for he had not prepared well for food or shelter on this journey, and they could give us both.  Even though his carriage was fancy, and so was our dress, he pleaded poverty, and so they let us accompany them.  They fed us, and the women sometimes made fun of my clothes and my long hair.  We traveled for four or five days to reach Drizha.  Davnoy stole a ram from the Magyars’ herd the morning we separated from them and turned toward Drizha, but the ram proved too wild and Davnoy slew it soon after.

“In Drizha we stayed with an acquaintance of one of Abru’s boatmen.  Mercifully, the trip was cold and very difficult for Davnoy as conductor of a horse-drawn carriage.  He had little time to think about menacing me, and I remained still and silent.  At the home of this acquaintance in Drizha they treated me as a betrothed and kept us apart in the sleeping quarters, for Davnoy played the part of the groom-to-be, and, to make him less suspicious of me, I played a quiet but pleasant maiden.

“The following day, we left the plain and entered these woods.  We were told we could look for the hostel of Polotnoy, and we found it without difficulty after two days and one very cold night in the woods.  Davnoy was distressed with the road he had chosen.  He often had to get down and push the carriage or pull the horse, and he complained that his clothes were being ruined.  More than once he — he struck me across the face for putting him through so much trouble.

“The next day we raced onward.  As often as I could I curled up on the boxes behind the driver’s bench and tried to nap.  This is where I lay when suddenly the carriage was turning upside down and was crushed.  This was a month ago, was it, Master Kolyek?”

I patted her hand in reply.  It had been a little more than that.

“So here I am, a fugitive slave, and one guilty of poisoning her master.”

“You spoke of Raznoy?” Euthymios asked.  Simonos leaned closer to hear.

“Yes,” Laïsha answered.  “He was here some days ago, but he did not recognize me.  I —” she looked at me “— I have altered my appearance so that I would not be found.”

“And what of Davnoy?” Euthymios wondered.

I was too paralyzed to speak first, so Laïsha answered: “He went to Pinea to have the carriage repai…” she trailed off and turned to me.  I must have been white.  All their eyes were upon me.

<Table of Contents> <Ten> <Twelve>  <People and Places>

Ten

Euthymios and Simonos
Pinea

I knelt and peeked through a crack low in the door.  Two men stood just outside, robed in furs, laden with packs and dragging a litter burdened with more packs.  With heads thrown back they were bellowing a song that was mournful, and, if better sung, might have been truly beautiful.  I thought I discerned a few words of Greek in their lyrics.  I doubted that they saw me peeking, so I rose and eased open the door.  The larger of the two then looked at me but kept on singing.  The other, who did not look, seemed to be leaning heavily upon his companion.  I watched a bit longer, and then abruptly they stopped.  I stared at them for some time longer, and they at me.  But what could I do?  For as I held open the door, the bite in the air told of an especially cold night ahead.  Here it was nearly bedtime and they with no shelter but what I could offer.

I looked over toward Laïsha.  “They are Greeks,” she said, “singing a song of praise to their god.”

“I thought so,” I agreed vacantly.  Turning back to the singers I bowed and motioned for them to enter.

“Peace be upon this house!” said the taller, more alert one in a fluid likeness of our Slavonic tongue, and he touched the lintel as he ducked and followed me inside.  He was bearing up the other, who repeated the “Peace” as I moved to help support him.

“You have chosen wisely to accept us,” the alert, tall one said cheerfully.  “I am Euthymios, although not the Seleucian Hermit of the same name from Mount Athos, and this is my brother Simonos.”

Simonos nodded firmly, but with pain.

“We have traveled from Greece and have spent a glorious spring in the land of Boris, the Khan of Bulgária — a brilliant ruler although not yet ready to accept the message of the Gospel.  But, while there, we have better learned to speak your language — see how we barely move our lips!” Euthymios announced gaily, and as he spoke, I suddenly felt very weak, cold, and pale.  Did they seek Sadruk, my master?  Sadruk had spoken of passing through Bulgária, somewhere in the direction of Greece.  Would others, such as the magistrate of Pinea, inquire whether these Greeks had brought word of my master?  (I had let it be supposed lately that he was even now in the Bulgar mountains or in Greece.)

“You are in need of medical care,” I observed as we lowered Simonos to the bench inside the door.  He nodded.  “And I am a physician of Greek training,” I added.  He glanced up with a pathetic look of hope in his weary eyes.

“Did you hear that, Brother?”  Euthymios clapped him on the back, knocking the fur wrap from Simonos’s thin shoulders.  “Did I not say, when you offered to lie down in the road and die only two stanzas ago, that if we sing ‘Come Faithful, Raise the Song’ our Master would surely come to our aid?”  Inhaling earnestly, Euthymios spread his arms as if to embrace the house. “And did I not quote, first: ‘O, that I had in the wilderness a lodging place for travelers!’  And then say, only moments later: ‘Brother, I see the smoke of a hearth!’?  And is this just any house, Simonos?  No!  In all the world, it would be the home of a physician!  ‘Honor the physician for his services, for our Master created him.  His skill comes from the Most High.  Our Master has created medicines from the earth, and a sensible man will not disparage them.  Our Master has imparted knowledge to men that by their use of his marvels he may win praise; by using them the physician relieves pain.  There is no end to the works of our Master who spreads health over the whole…’”

“Brother, cease!” Simonos pleaded.

“I was almost finished,” Euthymios countered defensively.  Then, turning to me: “I was commending you with the words of Yeshua, son of Sirach, whose words of wisdom no doubt are still alien to you.”

I was being honored, somehow, I supposed.  But then Simonos seemed to insult me, croaking: “‘Our good Master gave us this natural attribute: When a sick man sees his physician, he rejoices, even though, perhaps, he gains nothing from him.’  Thus I challenge you, Physician, with words from the Ladder of Giannis Climacus.”

Without their furs, the men both looked younger than they had at first.  Euthymios appeared to be the elder of the two, tall, dark-complected, and blessed with rich, curly, dark brown hair.  Without his outer wraps he still wore a peculiar, tall black cap.  Simonos was shorter, similar in rounded features, but devoid of top hair.  He had come inside wearing a similar hat but it now lay atop the furs he had lowered to the floor.  His head was loosely covered by a thick black hood attached to his robe.  His head was bald and shiny only on the top, but naturally so and not shaven.  From one ear around the back to the opposite ear he had a band of thick, black hair that curled toward his shoulders.  Both men had dark beards that hung long and curly, groomed square below the neck.  Each man wore a prominent ornament over his chest, suspended around the neck.  In both cases it was a dull-metal cross, that of Euthymios with more artistry applied to the ends and edges.

Euthymios spoke our language, interspersing a pleasing and sometimes comical mixture of words from Greek or other languages.  He kept up a constant effusion of such talk as I tried to gain Simonos’s attention and learn what his trouble might be.  It turned out that his feet were both frozen and swollen, the skin cracked but too cold to bleed.  What’s more, his throat was raw and sore, which may have accounted for some of the offensiveness of the singing.

The shoes the pair wore were constructed of bark, lined with fleece and bound with strips of leather.  I slowly and gingerly removed Simonos’s shoes while he looked skyward and winced in agony.  Euthymios hovered over his brother’s feet as well and explained that the light footwear in which they had set out from Greece had disintegrated before they were out of sight of the Black Sea.

“We lost our donkey yesterday,” Simonos remarked.  I must have appeared confused, for he went on immediately as massaged one foot: “She had become weak already, so we gradually shouldered most of her load, and then, yesterday…”

“She died?” I asked.

“Simonos nodded, apparently too broken-hearted to answer aloud.

“We had passed a little house early in the morning,” Euthymios began.  “We spent the night on the ground almost within sight of that house but didn’t know it was there.”

“Polotnoy’s house,” I told them.  “I wonder why he wasn’t home.”

Simonos continued: “So, we passed the house, and the donkey became restless, as if wanting to turn in there…”

“What is this?” I heard Euthymios exclaim suddenly, behind me.  I had been trying to ignore his other exclamations until I heard this.  He stood erect and faced the bed.  “Woman, are you ill?  Simonos, how provident!  Dear Physician, is this your wife?”

I looked at him and then at Laïsha.  She was lying in bed, still suffering her persistent nausea, but in this instant was staring at the three of us clustered opposite the door.  I looked back at Euthymios and nodded.

“Then it is to your benefit as well as ours that we have found each other!” said the man who sounded like a talking trumpet.

I explained that Laïsha had suffered a crushing blow to the ribs in an accident, and that more recently she had been suffering the effects of a plague-like illness.

I prepared a dish of cool (to him, warm!) water for Simonos to soak his feet.  Gently I washed them and lightly massaged them, then left him thus on the bench to rest and soak.  When I’d straightened, I introduced myself, Kolyek, and identified my lady as my wife Laïsha.  I thought she groaned when I said this, and I half looked at her to see her gazing at the roof in apparent resignation to the masquerade.  I judged the two men to be in their early thirties, while I was right around twenty-one and my lady almost eighteen but looking greater than thirty.

“You may be fortunate,” Euthymios announced, “for I am known as a healer also, although it is not I but my Master who heals through me.  Simonos has the gift as well.  Am I right, Brother?  Simonos has many unusual gifts.  Perhaps, Woman, you will tell us of your trouble before long, that we can have a prayer for your recovery.”

“It may be well to start with Simonos, here,” I suggested, “for his affliction is acute and perhaps the more serious.  While she is truly ill, Laïsha has been improving steadily.”

“I would accept prayers,” she said faintly, and the rest of us fell briefly silent.

Euthymios advanced to the bed and dropped to his knees beside her.  “You are a disciple of the Christ, then?” he asked hopefully.

“No.  But I have heard of your religion and your god.  I would gladly consider what your god may do for me, and I in turn for it.”

“Oh, Simonos!” Euthymios gushed, back on his feet.  “Do miracles take place in a vacuum?  Did you hear the woman?”  He turned back to Laïsha.  “We shall be about it, then, soon.  Very soon.  But it takes concentration.  I think first we should discuss arrangements for our board and for the services your husband is rendering.”

“You may stay,” I said flatly.

“And we will pay!”  Euthymios withdrew a purse from within a pouch that he wore and placed two small ingots of silver onto the shelf at the rear of the house which I use as a cooking area.

“We are near Pinea, are we not?” Euthymios asked.  I nodded.  “Did I not tell you, Brother…?”

“Yes, yes,” Simonos interrupted him, annoyed.

I wanted to laugh, and inwardly rejoiced to see that Simonos had a spirit after all, even though it was sorely repressed by his affliction.

“We are entering a new region, Simonos.  This will be the northerly limit of our journey.  Oh, My Friends, it has been a difficult trip, for we left only weeks ago from an area bathed in sunshine and the flowers of spring, and have walked steadily backward into winter.  And yet, this is not our first suchjourney, merely our longest so far.”  (I said inside myself: Turgey would seize this speech as evidence of his experience with the interminable winter he had described to me.)

Euthymios was holding forth: “We have come to bring the good news of Yeshua, Christos, to the people of this frontier called Ukraina.  ‘Yeshua,’ we say, but in this region the Master’s holy name sounds more like ‘Yesha.’”  (If there was a difference, I didn’t detect it.)

“Tell them who we are,” Simonos rasped, more as a suggestion than a command.  I added more warm water to his foot bath.

“Thank you, Brother, yes,” said Euthymios.  “Dear Quiet People, I have told you our names; I am Euthymios…”

The one with hurting feet leaned toward me, clearly intending to interrupt: “In his youth we called him ‘Euphorios.’”

The orator went on as if no such remark had been made: “Simonos and I are born of the same womb, I before him.  And we are brothers in our relationship to Yeshua, Christos, our Master and advocate.  Simonos is a hieromonk, although not a megaloschemos like our associate, Mefhodi (perhaps you’ve heard of him).  Simonos comes from the Monastery of Saint Giannis the Forerunner at Stoudios.  I am a bishop in the service of our Patriarch, Photios of Konstantinopolis, although no one would call me ‘Little Father,’ or Batyushka, in your tongue.  You may address either of us as ‘Holy Father.’”

I agreed with him there, I said inside myself; Batyushka did not fit his size.  Euthymios was quite near my idea of a giant, with flowing dark hair, while his blood brother, his head bald as an eyeball, was as small and fine-boned as a callow youth still yearning for whiskers.  Of whiskers, however, both men were well equipped.  As for ‘Holy Father,’ this title sounded frankly ridiculous, so I let it pass.

“We hope to establish a northern congregation of believers somewhere here in the frontier of Sarmatia — in Pinea perhaps, and once done, to move eastward into the region of the Khazars.  Our former abbot at Polychrono, Mefhodi of Thessaloniki, and his brother-by-birth as well as in-the-Christ, Konstantin, have by this time opened the land of the Khazars to receive the things we have to teach.  We are to explore this area and then make our way eastward to join with them as they meet with the Kagan of the Khazars.”

“We are the parabolani…” Simonos groaned as he shifted his feet in the bowl, “…the risk-takers.”

“Simonos is referring to a Turkic people who worship Tangrï,” Euthymios added in assent.  “I fear — no, I imagine that our risk is great.  For, as we have entered this land, ‘we have had no rest and we have been afflicted at every turn, troubles all around us and fears within.’”

“‘Your garments did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these last forty days,’” Simonos taunted.  Through the coming weeks we would hear the brothers banter this way nearly every day: making conversation using lines of ancient scripture.

Euthymios was unperturbed: “Ah, good brother, but I too feel chastened.”  Then he resumed: “Many missionaries of the church have suffered terrible adversity at the hands of these and other pagan followers.  We have not come alone, though,” Euthymios announced as if practicing to give a speech before an assembly of hundreds.  Pacing our small house, he went on: “We have merely plodded ahead of our fellow-travelers, because we believe other teachers of the Gospel have not ranged this deeply into this forest.  We set out by sea from Konstantinopolis, bound for Cherson or Theodosia, but were driven ashore in a storm and landed near Varna.  There we decided to wait many weeks until we were blessed to join with a small caravan which included others of our mission also bound for Semender.”

As he was thus speaking, I was bustling between Laïsha and Simonos, listening but giving little thought to his oration.

Euthymios continued: “After some days we took our leave of that slow procession, though, and came on ahead, going where God might lead us, but we are pledged to rejoin our caravan at the crossing of the Dnepr, or at Cherson if they have already crossed the River.  People of our mission now seem to be swarming all over Sarmatia.  We enjoy an adventure, do I not speak truly, Simonos?”

“My feet have enjoyed the thrill of our adventure more than any other of my parts, Euthymios,” came the glum reply.

Then, from Euthymios: “We are no longer the fleet-of-foot, I admit.”

Turning to me, Simonos explained: “We are the diplomats, the fleet-of-mind.  As I feel right now, though, I’d trade half my diplomat’s mind for a pair of mercurial feet.”

This itinerary told me nothing useful, but I accepted it as worthy information just the same.  I advised them that they were a fast four hours’ walk, or a third of the sun’s daytime arc, from Pinea.  We talked some about the village and the people while I served a meal that was deliberately meager.  (I hoped to keep our reputation for hospitality at a minimum.)  As we ate, they finished the story of their donkey.  As they progressed northward where grazing was land was more and more scarce, they were able to purchase sacks of grain.  But they rationed the grain, which fasting the donkey seemed to tolerate.  They went so far as to feed her every third or fourth day and then would let her eat all she wanted.  And she seemed not to want more than a day’s ration at that.  Water was plentiful due to the springtime runoff.  Her response between feedings was simply to follow them, and during the first two days after they left Drizha, their progress was discouraging.  The donkey began panting and her breath, never pleasant anyway, became fetid.  Then came bursts of diarrhea.  With this development, the brothers had unburdened her, and on her final morning, still one day before arriving at our house, they watched her wander, disoriented, from the trail and stagger into the woods just past Polotnoy’s house.  Euthymios followed for some distance until the ailing beast flopped to the ground and swung her head around to glare at him with pitiful, pleading eyes.  Convulsions soon followed, and thus he left her there.

As I was helping Laïsha prepare for the night behind her curtain, she prompted me to tell the brothers of my master’s current sojourn in the south.  This I dreaded to do, for what if they knew him, and what if they knew in what city he would be if he were alive and could truly have been there, and what if they knew of his son as well?  The questions they could ask me would be insufferable.  Still, after her urging, I relented.

Mercifully, they knew him not, but regretted that they had not known to seek him before leaving on their trek, for Sadruk might have wanted to travel with them or to send messages home.

We discussed the idea of praying for Laïsha’s healing, and, with Laïsha’s agreement, set it to take place early the next morning.  As the rest of us prepared to retire for the night, Euthymios had the idea that we should move Laïsha’s bed before the stove, there to receive the maximum warmth on this extremely cold night.  With uncommon commotion we accomplished this move, keeping it raised as I had fixed it before, and placed it with the foot of the bed toward the very opening to the coals.

I expected the brothers to lay out their bedding on the top slab of the stove.  Instead, to make things really cozy, Euthymios and Simonos volunteered to sleep in the very tight space beneath the bed with their feet thrust against the blaze.  They explained that they must sleep on the hard, cold floor because they were just then undertaking a personal sacrifice in reverence for their Master’s suffering.  I shrugged at this insufficient explanation.  When the beds were set and while the brothers were kneeling in mumbled prayer in a far corner, using their hands to stir the air before them in unison in precise gestures, Laïsha and I exchanged glances.  She rolled her eyes and patted the bed cover beside her.

I crawled in among the furs.  “I’m sorry, but I guess we must do this,” I whispered.

“I feel very ill, but it will be comforting to have your warmth,” she replied.

“They will have to stay here for some time.  Simonos cannot walk to Pinea now.”

“I have no trouble with the idea.  I have heard of their ability to heal, those of the Christ, and I have faith in their powers.”

I felt a wave of resentment and wanted to ask Laïsha where her faith in my own healing powers had fled.  I lay silent.  Then I thought back to my earlier musings about determination.  This offer from Euthymios had strengthened her will to be healed, so it could not be all bad.  Let it be as they proposed, then.  Maybe I would learn something from observing their method that I could apply in my own practice of medicine.

The brothers said a blessing in Greek over our bed before they crawled beneath us, and all became profoundly silent.  For some time I pondered this silence.  It was deeply restful, but at the same time deeply disturbing.  No trees creaked outside.  No branches clattered.  No owl hooted.  The fire, even though it glowed, didn’t sputter.  The nighttime rustle of mice and skitter of insects were absent.  I couldn’t even hear anyone breathing.

I said inside myself: I should make a sound and see whether I can hear it.  But something — fear that I had lost my hearing? — made me resist that.  Then I wondered whether Laïsha were even still in bed with me, for I took care not to press against her or otherwise touch her while I lay with her, (unless consoling her as I had done during Raznoy’s visit), both as a precaution against causing her pain and out of respect for the fact that she might one day become another man’s wife and might wish to retain her honor.  Nonetheless, if she were missing from the bed, how did she escape?  I had not yet slept, nor moved at all, nor detected any movement beside me.

My right hand crept outward from my side, beneath the coverings, and was suddenly caught in the clutch of her left!  I raised my head and turned to look her way.  There beside her knelt Euthymios, head bent in prayer, a hand placed on Laïsha’s forehead.  Still I heard not a sound, and if his voice were employed in the praying, then I had certainly gone deaf.

I lay my head back and relaxed.  Oddly, once I discovered this situation, I felt no more apprehensions about the brothers nor anger at their professed powers to heal.  Laïsha held my hand for a long time, and I know not when I fell asleep, but when I awoke to the bright light of advanced morning there were sounds in profusion.

Birds chirped excitedly outside the open door.  Simonos sat on an up-ended log with his back to the stove and was making a hoarse wheeze which I interpreted immediately as a laugh.  Beside me Laïsha was sitting, turned toward the door, and was also laughing delightedly.

Without rising, I turned to see.  Euthymios crouched in the open doorway, holding out a long plank.  On the end of the plank sat two or three small birds, pecking at some substance placed there, and other birds fluttered about it.  Slowly, Euthymios was backing into the house, bringing the birds in with him.

Then, on a cue from one of their own, the door yard roared with the rush of wing beats as all the birds swirled in a flock out over my sinister brush pile and disappeared into the forest.

<Table of Contents> <Nine> <Eleven>  <People and Places>

Nine

Sadruk-the-Physician and Kolyek-the-Physician
Pinea and Greece

We had been warm in the night, since the fire had been kept up by the intruders, and also since we had warmed one another by sharing the same bed.  But it was truly cold when at last, about mid-day, I left the bed and left my “wife” soundly sleeping.

I built up the fire, of course, and prepared a breakfast for us, and then slipped outside to see what I could determine.

They had departed, for certain.  Their tracks led to the road and off in the direction of Drizha.  Even by horse it would take at least a very long day getting there, but there were stopping places along the route.  There were some modest houses like Gonashi’s, the nearest of which, a very long day’s journey from Pinea by horse, perhaps two days by foot, belonged to an overbearing slob called Polotnoy.  He pretended it to be a hostel, because it included a second hut with a raised floor for livestock or guests and had a stable (poorly constructed of woven saplings).

Polotnoy and the other people in the houses south of me would remember the carriage with the young man and the lady.  Our just-departed visitor, if accurately informed by Polotnoy and by the citizens of Drizha, would readily determine that the ones he sought had indeed progressed past Polotnoy’s lodging, moving in our direction.  What was left to conclude but that I had seen them?  However, travelers often passed my house, set back as it was, without stopping.  If this nobleman believed my denial, then Gonashi would have been next in line to see them.  If the nobleman believed that Gonashi, too, had not seen Davnoy, then the villagers of Pinea would next be suspect, and he would return there in great anger.

If the nobleman suspected me, or poor Gonashi, he would  return in a couple of days, deliver a terrible punishment, and return forever to Dneprokiev.  To do that, though, he would be admitting he’d lost hope.  He seemed more nearly convinced that the ones he sought could yet be found.  I hoped he would persuade himself that his lost party had achieved Pinea, as indeed he must already have concluded, finding the horse there.  And if he wanted to accuse the village of harboring a secret about lost travelers, he would need more than his two guards to bring any retribution down upon them.

When Laïsha awoke she professed to be exhausted beyond words and stayed in bed.  I believed her, but I pressed her for some conversation.  I told her of the direction the intruders had taken, and that I could imagine they might return once they found others farther along who had seen Davnoy and a lady depart in our direction.

“These were people whom you knew?” I inquired.

“The soldiers, only a little.  They are of the household guard of Abru.  The arrogant ‘nobleman’ is Davnoy’s older brother, Raznoy.  It was him I expected when Davnoy did not return.  It was only for last night that…” — she put up a hand to touch her nose and eyebrows —  “…that I ruined my face.”

I pulled her hand back gently and held onto it, regarding the contours of her roughened fingers.

I had to know, too, I told her, whether she were fully in possession of her faculties the previous night when she had moaned and wailed and gone on about the children and wolves.

“I was, fully,” she assured me.  “It was a good story you made up from the nonsense I uttered,” she smiled weakly.

“It was clever of you to conjure wolves,” I said, returning the compliment.  “And children, and ‘the dream!’  And of course the three horsemen, although you didn’t have to conjure them!”

Laïsha leaned forward where she lay, a signal that I was to prop her head so she could peer around the room.  “My imagination provided the children and the dream,” she said, straining while I packed furs behind her neck.  “But the wolves are not imaginary.”

I stood over her and held her gaze.  “There haven’t been wolves in these woods and plains in hundreds of years,” I said after a moment.

“They have returned.”  She looked at me as if pitying me, and I think my expression showed concern for her sanity.  “It is true, and well you may not know it yet,” she allowed.  “Davnoy and I were pursued for a distance by what we thought were wolves.  Soon after that, we arrived at the hostel belonging to your distant neighbor, Polotnoy.  When we told him of this experience, he acknowledged that he had begun to hear from others of their being nearby.  He had heard them howling on occasion, and thought he had seen a pack of them himself on a return trip from Drizha a month earlier.”  She stopped, then added, “I am sorry; I didn’t conjure the wolves.”

I was stunned.  This meant that wolves were making their way roughly from west to east, Drizha being to our southwest.  This bode ill for those few like Gonashi, my friend, and Polotnoy, whom I disliked, who chose to live apart, in the country.

Gonashi’s herd would perish.  I grieved for him.  For me, it was no threat.  I was leaving soon.  But now I knew for certain that neither could I leave Laïsha behind alone nor could I travel alone toward my vague destination in the south.

If anything, though, both her deranged behavior and the near certainty that Davnoy’s brother would at least hear confirmation of the wolves, if not encounter them himself, comforted me.  I felt that Davnoy would ever more pass us by.  We must surely have seemed completely authentic.  Raznoy’s search would end, but not at my house.

Laïsha remained in bed for some days and became more ill after the departure of the intruders.  She was drawn by fever, and fell to moaning and panting often.  She accepted my preparations made from sage to reduce her sweating and nausea, but even though I plied her with bitters of goldthread, she had no appetite.  Once again she alone occupied the bed, while I returned to my loft.  For as many days as she remained this ill the only visitors were incidental local people with injuries or illnesses I could treat in the yard outside my door.

Laïsha’s illness seemed less related to the injury, although I could not be sure, but more like a mild case of the plague, which in various forms afflicted some to the death and others to lifelong weakness.  Still others, and many enough they were, recovered completely.

The symptoms she possessed pointed to a plague, but she did not get them all at one time.  She vomited on occasion, coughed often, ached in the head and in the joints, had liquid bowels, and endured waves of nausea.  I watched for changes in skin color, for victims killed by the plague often darkened quickly in the final stages.  At one point I even thought the joke might be on me after all: Earlier, I had imagined obtaining a perfect female cadaver.  Now, if she died, this very body of hers could be ruined both by the plague and also by my fondness for her, for I could now no longer conceive of hacking her cold carcass to pieces for study.

If she died!  The thought petrified me now.  At first she was nobody, only a bloody accident victim near death.  Now she was my charge, a product of my care, a person with a history of her own, the very mystery of which intrigued me, a lovely and compassionate woman, and, I reckoned advisedly, my companion for a time, of whom I had become strangely enamored.

I had no choice but to clean her thoroughly every so often, for her monthly discharge began, followed with diarrhea for a couple of days, and I tried not to make these ministrations seem too frequent or prolonged, whether she were conscious or asleep.  (For one thing, as things stood, I had few enough rags even without such a mess to attend.  I was continually soaking strips of cloth and drying them on the stove only to use them right away again to clean her.)

But pure as I tried to keep my thoughts, the ideas these duties stirred in my private reflections sometimes consumed me for hours.  When she was clean again, and covered and clearly unconscious, I could hardly resist the urge to have a look just for my own pleasure.  But I controlled these impulses by pulling my forelock and chewing my beard and devising concoctions and keeping track of the treatments I was applying to her.  In spite of the temptation and the opportunity that lay before me, I only ever looked at her and touched her in a manner that was appropriate to her care.

For days that seemed interminable she held on.  The few things she said, on one particularly dark day, were only requests to be allowed to die.  I met these moments with my greatest outpouring of tenderness, both to console her and from my own despair at the thought of losing her.  I could not let her go.

And, almost imperceptibly, she began to improve.  Slowly.  I chattered to her when I knew she was awake, and crept around silently when she slept.  We didn’t cook or do other light chores together during these days as we’d previously begun to do, although at one point she coached me in raising the bed by its four corners to bring it to a more natural height for sitting.  This she wanted to do so that one might then be able to rise and sit back down without starting off so near the floor.  I accomplished this task with blocks of wood which I shaped to the desired dimensions and placed under the bed’s short legs.  By lashing slim poles crosswise between the wall posts and center posts of the house and tying strips of linen to these rods I made a curtain that I could drop around her for privacy when she wanted to bathe herself or use the pot.

While she lay disabled by this aggravation, I, a true procrastinator, became impatient for something for maybe the first extended period in my life: impatient to see her fully well again, yes — and impatient to leave this place, yes — but impatient for something else that I could not solidly identify.  The nearest I came to an explanation was that I wanted to understand things better.  I wanted to grasp this business of ease and disease, the processes of hurt and healing, and, as all men have desired: the mysteries of life and death.

As I tended Laïsha during these days some elements of understanding penetrated my mind for fleeting moments, and I seized them.  I spoke them aloud to her un-listening ears, and with my limited knowledge of writing I inscribed these thoughts, using Greek characters my master had taught me and others that I had devised myself, so that I might ponder these ideas later.  Chiefly, I began to understand that for a person to get well, his injury or illness must be of a kind not exceeding certain limits.

A man whose head has been chopped off, for example, is clearly beyond healing.  But Laïsha’s deep wound was not necessarily fatal.  It was not beyond the limit.  Maybe some day I could determine, through observation or experiment, what the limit is for a severe injury such as hers.

The limit for diseases proved more difficult to define.  I wanted to use the plague as an ultimate disease, just as losing one’s head might be an ultimate injury.  But the plague had many forms.

Even so, there seemed to be a kind of plague that a few people fell victim to from time to time that was more horrible than the rest.  It took them swiftly but with wretched suffering.  Perhaps these were different plagues, different diseases altogether.  Maybe Laïsha suffered from a disease that should not properly be called a plague.

All manner of complicated possibilities attacked the clarity of my first ruminations on this subject, like: What if a person has both an injury that is below the limit for injuries, but also has an illness that is below the limit for illnesses?  Together might they conspire to reach the limit of human tolerance?  Might this, then, be grounds for further concern for Laïsha?  I knew from the beginning that all my skill as a physician must be called into play in her case, and I saw now that there was still no room for error.

But oh, how poor were our methods and our understanding!

Sadruk, my teacher, brought me to believe that there is no healing in magic, in spells and incantations, in the stars and talismans.  Privately, like him, I dismissed the spirits and their associated diseases altogether.  I still harbored suspicions that the spirits existed and conferred some power on their minions in the human world, but I could see that they were truly ineffectual in conferring or withholding healing.

All healing, Sadruk taught me, is a combination of the medicines that the body stores within itself, and those that a physician can apply to complement the body’s defenses.

Sadruk was firm in this conviction, and it made so much sense that I base all my work on it.  He had come to this truth through the study he had taken himself in Bulgária, where, when he was young, he had worked for a year with a Greek physician, and in meetings with other physicians of his persuasion, and by his own observations.  His own regret was that he had never been able to go all the way to Thessaloniki or Athens for an extended period of study.  He made sure that his son, though, had been able to go.

Sadruk also taught me that a person’s own spirit, or determination to be healed, served greatly in the process.  This latter principle I suspected was fraught with far more importance than even he had given it.  And as I watched over Laïsha in these days, one of many corollary principles came to me.  For Laïsha had seemed to be doing fine until severe stresses to her mind were brought on by the intruders.  I speculated that, without these stresses, her course of healing would not have been set back.  So, yes, her determination was crucial, but so was an atmosphere free of pressure.

While she lay at my mercy I studied — oh! I studied!  Sadruk had left notes on his readings of Dioscorides and Aurelius Celsus and Galen.  He quoted Socrates often, and I had recorded these sayings in my own translations.  And he had obtained a codex containing the advice of Anthimus, a Greek physician, a book which I now slowly read and reread for hours until my head would ache.

Anthimus believed that fasting was beneficial to health.  Well, Laïsha had certainly received all the benefit of fasting while with me.  If I were to try to survive even on twice what she consumed I am sure I would have withered like a dried berry.

I was versed in the nature of herbs, of course.  And what I lacked in knowledge of the internal parts of the human body I deduced from my butchering of pigs, sheep, and other hairy creatures.  I also took seriously, but with only vague understanding, Sadruk’s reliance upon — upon a kind of faith in his ability.  He would do his best, and was adept at convincing his sufferers that they had received the very best of care.  After that he didn’t worry.  I even suspected that he had a secret god that he invoked without divulging so to me or to his sufferers.

The importance of this reliance on faith in one’s self was borne out the more because the other physicians I knew of, such as Bugra-dezhu, the ancient one in Pinea, relied heavily upon things that Sadruk ridiculed.  The old one would first require his sufferer to name the star under which he was born.  If he knew not, then Bugra-dezhu would deduce the star from something in the sufferer’s eyes or hands.  It was essential for the sufferer to drink the medicines only when the moon was in a favorable position.  Over the years, many who came to him for treatment were allowed to die anyway for lack of a medicine, because to consume the medicine under the wrong phase of the moon might prove fatal!  There were lucky and unlucky days for blood-letting.  Many of his preparations included the physician’s own urine, or animal excrement.  He made pastes of dried maggots, and brews from animal hair and from the sufferer’s own blood.

Sadruk, too, had methods that I doubted, but I adhere to them still, until the day I learn of something more effective.  For example, for a toothache, Sadruk would burn a candle of mutton fat, mingled with the seed of sea holly, as close to the tooth as possible, holding a basin of cold water underneath.  Worms gnawing the tooth, he maintained, would fall into the water to escape the heat of the candle.  I marveled that Sadruk believed the worms could know the water was there and even that it was cool water.

I lean toward the herbs — sage and rue, poppy, mint, and parsley; I use the aromatic bark of certain trees, oil extracts of any oil-producing plants, clear water sometimes boiled, finely ground minerals, especially powders made from any kind of crystal.  Some parts of animals are recommended for unusual ailments, and when combined with clay, make useful poultices.  These are my weapons in the struggle against disease and injury.  These are the things I now relied upon in my effort to revive Laïsha.

During these days I kept Laïsha calm and talked to her in ways that I thought would aid in her determination to get well.  In time she was able to smile at me weakly, and seemed to appreciate the peace I tried to provide.  Still, she could not draw a sufficient breath of air, and her nausea discouraged her from eating and from accepting the preparations I made for her, although she trusted me and tried.  As much as possible, I presented her with clear broths, which I would trickle onto her tongue.  She could control her swallowing this way, and even though it took hours, I saw that she consumed a cupful of something nearly every day.

At all times, out-of-doors, I was alert for the coming of wolves.  I wanted to send word to Gonashi, but then, if they would not penetrate this far east, why alarm him?  Besides, Gonashi would hear of them from other travelers.  His house stood at the river crossing along the road, and while it was possible for travelers to pass the path leading to my cottage without realizing it was there, they could not miss Gonashi’s.  He would hear.

Outside I had planted some root crops from some seeds given to us.  Spring was not fully upon us, but certain shrubs had burst their buds, exposing frail green leaves, and certain trees likewise.  The nights were still frosty.  We endured much rain by day, and at last were relieved for a couple of days when the sun shone again.  Laïsha had begun to take an interest in her recovery, and my hopes rose for both of us.

And then, on the evening of about the twenty-first day of Laïsha’s stay, as I fumbled in front of the house for dry fuel in the pile, I heard a distant, chilling cry.  With it rose another.  For a few seconds I listened.  The howling ceased and then resumed.  And, unmistakably, it drew nearer.

Frantic, I dropped the half load of tinder from my arm and collided with the door post and with the lintel as I rushed into the house.  Panting and with tears of fear in my eyes I rolled the wind stone against the closed door and leaned my own back against it as well, pointing toward the outside so that Laïsha would grasp the circumstances while I regained my voice.  A moment later I rushed to board up the window from the inside and returned to lean on the door.

Together we listened.  And then it became loud enough to hear clearly from inside.

I scrambled over Laïsha, saying inside myself that I must cover and thereby protect her with my body.  But I realized the stupidity of this soon enough — that I must not crush her and harm her — and landed instead on the empty side of the bed.  We clutched each other and I confessed to her that I didn’t know what wolves would do once they found our house.  I couldn’t express all my fears in words, but I know we shared the same thoughts.  Would they linger for days, waiting for someone to emerge?  Would they try to enter?  Would they climb to the roof and steal the remaining meat stored there?  Would they claw through the roof?  How on earth does anybody drive away wolves?

Incredibly, they howled boldly right up to our very door, and then, even more incredibly, in their chorus we began to make out words of speech! — (although not words we could readily understand).

While I sat straight up, stupefied by this latest revelation, Laïsha tried to laugh for the first time in many days, and as she did she pushed me from the bed so that I might answer the door.  No one was knocking yet, but it was plain, once my mind sorted out the truth of our scare, that we were about to have visitors, and not only that but visitors who loved to sing even though they could not.

I stood inside, awaiting a knock and glancing about for an implement of self-defense.  Outside the door two or three hoarse but strong male voices filled the evening stillness with chorus.  I paused to make certain that they had advanced as far as the front of the house.  Still I waited.  They sang.  I waited still longer.  Inexplicably, as they sang on, they were standing before the house, waiting too.

<Table of Contents> <Eight> <Ten>  <People and Places>

Eight

Raznoy, Bugra-dezhu, and the Wolves
Pinea

Laïsha was stooped over the fire until we were all inside, then she straightened slowly, and with a hard, silent look at the intruders, shuffled lamely to the window.  While the intruders busied themselves warming their hands and sampling the stew, Laïsha pushed open the as yet un-boarded felt curtain and look in the direction of the horses.  She let out a weak moan, and I felt sure that here were the seekers of Davnoy.

I would be lucky to survive this encounter, and she, too, if she were hiding from some misdeed perpetrated upon the household of the merchant of Dneprokiev.

“Some food, then, if you please!” said the new nobleman jovially, but authoritatively enough that he was not to be refused.  Nor would I have refused him.  First, though, I took Laïsha by the arm and helped her to the bed.  I did this as much to point out to the visitors that she was ailing as to help her along.  I thought she might have something to whisper to me, but she repeated her moaning and even increased it to an irritating wail.

“Laïsha, please, relax and be comfortable,” I urged her, easing her onto the bed.  One of the soldiers came and peered at us sternly in the dimness of evening, but I ignored him.

“Let the woman tend her guests!” bellowed the nobleman.

“She has been gravely ill, Sir,” I explained.  “She will rest while I tend to your needs.”

While I was serving the three visitors Laïsha rose and tried to help me a little, although her efforts apparently were to make my work more efficient, not actually to serve them.  All the while she kept up a weak, high moaning.  I set a generous portion of our new stew before them that the three of them could share.

The nobleman asked me whether I had seen a carriage and a man who might have identified himself as Davnoy of Dneprokiev.  In the dimming light Laïsha and I had exchanged a glance as he was asking this question, and so I parried it with a half truth, which she could not dispute, that no visitor here had told me that that was his name.

The nobleman talked while he ate, without looking at me or at my lady, but one guard eyed me constantly while the other ate quickly and then helped himself to my stored food to feed their horses.

“The magistrate of Pinea has the horse that was Davnoy’s,” the nobleman went on.

“Then I would conclude that Davnoy of Dneprokiev has taken a lodging in this area,” I suggested, over Laïsha’s chilling moan.

The nobleman stopped his chewing and looked her way, then back at me, more astounded than irritated.

“I cannot quiet her,” I told him, hiding my growing amusement.  Why she was doing it I did not know.  Again, however, I escorted her to the bed and sat her down.  She walked in true pain, and I said, plain enough for all to hear: “Laïsha, My Dear Wife, you don’t have to help.  You are in great pain, and you can stay right here in bed.”

She wouldn’t lie down, but sat there staring and moaning low.

The nobleman jumped up from his meal and pointed at me with his flat wooden spoon.  “Davnoy has met an ill fate, and I deduce that it befell him somewhere in these woods!  How can a carriage and a man vanish?  This is not a wilderness!  I am persuaded that there was a young woman with him, too.  Vanished?”

He swept into the center of the room and whirled about, scanning the dark interior of the house.  He fixed for a moment on Laïsha, who stared at the floor and moaned more quietly.

“You see,” he went on, addressing me, “that might be plausible.  They might have vanished — been consumed by a river or lost in a ravine — but there’s the matter of the horse.”  He paced.  “So if no one talks here, we can make some trouble.  For someone in these parts obtained the horse of Davnoy of Kiev, and do you know what else?”

“I think I do,” I replied, startling him.

“Then tell!”

“That would be the horse that my neighbor Gonashi found near his home by the river.”

“Very good, Physician!  That is the horse that the magistrate of Pinea now keeps for us.  A horse that has had its mane and tail altered, and only very recently.  What else would you like to tell us, now?”

“That is all I know,” I told him.  Now my lady, Laïsha, knew how easily I could lie.  I feared that she would be strengthened in her own belief that I knew more than I would tell her.

The nobleman addressed his soldiers: “Search!  Search the whole house, and if you find nothing, search the outside.”  Turning to me, he said: “Your friend Gonashi has a very small house, and he made us welcome.  We were kind in our search there.”

“I hope you have felt welcome here, too,” I said, and laughed dryly.

The guards were kinder than I thought they would be.  They moved methodically.  I didn’t know whether Laïsha felt safe in her disguise.  She showed no fear.  But my fear rose to cold panic each time they approached my door or my medicines.  One guard lifted the sleeping pad all but where Laïsha sat.  The other walked by my shelves of medicines two times, then paused to dump a couple of jarfuls onto the floor.

Finally, one climbed to the loft and brought down my kotomka being made ready for travel.  He also motioned to the nobleman to suggest that the latter take a look above.  The nobleman climbed back down and glared at me.

“Who sleeps there?” he asked, accusing.

“I have, from time to time, when…” I lowered my voice “…when Laïsha is especially difficult.”

The nobleman took the travel sack from the soldier and dumped its contents onto the floor.  Then he stared at me.  “Leaving, were you?” he asked.

I swallowed and choked back tears.  Then I thought clearly.  “Surely you would understand that a physician must make short trips to dispense medical aid to those who cannot travel,” I said with little confidence.  “I must tend the magistrate of Pinea at times, and these are the things I would take with me.  Having extra, I keep them thus packed.”  I marveled again at my mixed luck, for I had not yet included arrows and my bow in the pack.  They still hung by the door, readied for my fowl hunting.

The nobleman was incredulous.  “There is no physician in Pinea?  Then why do you not move to the village and save your sufferers so much travel?”

He thought he had me, but the truth was easy: “There is a spirit-monger, one who has lived there for nearly a century, whose name is Bugra-dezhu.  He is venerated even though the villagers know him to be dangerous.”  I momentarily recalled an incident that explained Bugra-dezhu: When six children in one family died in the time between the full moon and the empty moon — this was during the first month I was with Sadruk — Bugra-dezhu pronounced it a curse.  Sadruk, on the other hand, called it a strickening — a weakness in the family members that rendered them helpless against the cause, but for which cause there may have been a remedy.  In spite of such a record of travesty as followed the old charlatan, Sadruk feared that our kind of physician was an aberration that wouldn’t last.  The people would rather propitiate dubious gods and call upon their ancestors’ spirits through a pretentious fraud like Bugra-dezhu, a magician who kept them under his spell of fear by casting spells they need not fear, by performing tricks with lodestone, and by his intimidating and self-important countenance.  I avoided troubling the intruder with this much detail.

“He is an old bocolabras, more interested in casting spells and calling upon stars than in applying healing remedies,” I went on.  “We have tarried here knowing that he will some day die.  The young magistrate, however, does not trust him, but according to the wishes of the people allows him still to practice his craft.”

“Such a magistrate has no future,” muttered the nobleman, after he had contemplated my speech.  “Nor have you.  You talk too much.  I know your kind of medicine, and you displease the spirits by denying them their power.  You will be taught a bitter lesson when the spirits are ready to destroy you.”

One of the guards had been searching outside the house for evidence of the missing Davnoy and waited until his young master was finished with that conversation before he felt free to report his findings.  “We have a supply of meat on the roof, I’m happy to report: some of it pork from a pig, poorly butchered, and some sheep hearts and livers, evidently much-prized, judging by how well it was protected.”  The guard gave me a sly smile.

Reeling at the insult to my butchering, I began to stammer that was something besides meat up there.

“Fetch us as much of the sheep meat as we can carry,” the nobleman commanded.  “Let these pigs eat their own kind!”  He snickered at his cleverness, while Laïsha instantly bent over, coughing and choking where she sat.  I hurried to sit beside her and bent as well until I could see her face.

She was laughing!  But the coughing was real, and the pain of it fought fiercely against her amusement.  She leaned into my shoulder and wiped her nose and mouth against my shirt.  As she did so, her eyes met mine and held them for a moment.  There was still a merry gleam there, but she was crying nonetheless.  My jaw dropped at this instant as I shuddered with the awareness of what she already understood.  Laïsha slid past my back to lie on the bed and pulled my head down alongside hers.  “Say nothing about the meat they take,” she groaned softly into my ear.  “Dead slaves are not hard to replace.”

As I rose slowly from the bed I resolved to ask her as soon as I could how she knew of these body parts — when had I spoken of it?  Shortly afterward, though, I inexplicably recalled the conversation with Turgey as he and I had stood in the doorway.

This nobleman was probably my same age.  Yet next to him I felt small, provincial, embarrassed.  He had struck fear in me, and I suppressed it for the present: I feared that Sadruk’s medicine, which I now practiced, did indeed displease the spirits.  I feared the consequences he foretold.  But I might also fear the consequences of this visit, so I dismissed his remark, feeling foolishly brave.

The guards both circled the outside of the house a couple of times.  They also walked a way into the woods in back of the house, and one visited the scene of my bonfire, but in the waning twilight evidently did not detect the ashes beneath the fresh brush I had piled thickly onto the site.  Then all convened in the center of the room.

“We will stay here the night,” the nobleman said to his guards, but just that moment Laïsha burst into a wail that even set the horses outside to neighing.

I rushed to her and wrapped an arm around her, but with strength I didn’t expect she rose from my light grip and cried: “Three horsemen!  The dream!  The children!  The wolves!  Three horsemen!”  Wild-eyed, she turned upon me and shouted: “Now the wolves will come for us!”

While I pulled her back onto the bed beside me the nobleman said nervously: “There are no wolves in these woods!”

“Ages ago they were here,” I said, mostly to Laïsha.

She glared at me — at us all, then said, suddenly more quietly:  “Then they were gone.  Now they’ve come back.”

While she continued moaning and babbling about horsemen and wolves I raised the bed covers and forced her into a reclining position.  I tried to imagine what she was thinking: dream, children, three horsemen.  It was enough to go on, so I patted her shoulder and made up a story about our children, two boys, chased and eaten this very winter by wolves, and about a recurring dream that Laïsha had been having that when three horsemen appeared the wolves would return to eat us.

The nobleman and his soldiers stood dumbfounded next to the smoldering stove.

“I find your tale unbelievable, but why you would construct such a lie I cannot deduce.  We will remain here until first light, and then you can be assured we will be gone.”

To guard the horses the nobleman assigned himself the first watch and assigned his soldiers to divide the rest of the night.  I offered to watch as well, but the nobleman, suspicious of my state of sanity and certain of Laïsha’s, declined the offer.  “Keep your hag from that hideous moaning in any way you can,” he ordered me.

While I re-packed my sack, the nobleman made his bed upon the stove and one guard made his bed upon the bench beside it.  The other guard climbed to the loft.  The darkness was deep already, both inside and out, and I realized suddenly that Laïsha and I would be expected to share the master’s bed.

“Forgive me, but —” I began to whisper as I hesitantly sat upon the skins and blankets beside her, taking the position away from the door in order not to crowd her injured ribs, but she put her hand over my mouth for a second, and then lifted the covers and tugged my arm to draw me inside.

“Silence!” she insisted in the quietest whisper I’d ever heard.

And so I remained silent.

“The wolves!” Laïsha occasionally cried out weakly all through the night, and each time she did it I would stroke her hair and with whispered assurances try to console her.  Was this an act?  I felt certain that it was.  Each time she uttered it — “The wolves!” — it sounded as though she had resigned to a fate at the jaws of such beasts.

At other times in the night I could feel her weeping silently, and this I knew to come from her pain and from her exhaustion.  Again I would stroke her hair, and at these times she truly seemed consoled.  It gave me a strange stirring to caress her head so freely.  I found that I did it for my own pleasure as much for her reassurance, and so I touched her that way probably more than the situation called for.  But she accepted every advance I made as if it truly meant something to her.

I didn’t sleep at all.  I saw the silhouette of the nobleman or one of his soldiers poking the fire from time to time.  I heard their murmuring when they changed the guard, and realized that were it not for the nobleman’s sleeping, the guards would not have kept their business in whispers, for they bore no respect for this country physician and his bugle of a wife.

At one point in the night the guard on duty must have been sniffing or feeling inside my medicine jars.  The clanking of jar lids and his occasional audible recoil from the odors made clear his actions.

There could still be a chance that he’d find the yellow jewel or the medal that had belonged to their besought Davnoy.  There could also be a chance, unless I acted soon, that Laïsha would find them.

I thought hard about the lies I had told her, and whether I should carefully give her the truth.  But if only my plan would work, that I would leave her here to have this house for her own until she wished to leave it, then she never need to know the awful truth, for I would take all the remaining evidence with me.

I must protest that I was not such a callous man as would abandon a woman to fend for herself in these woods.  I thought and thought, and at last I realized what might work out.  I could invite Gonashi, through messages after my departure, to take up residence here in this house.  Even though it had only one room and a loft, it was much more accommodating than his hut by the river where he raised as many children as sheep.  Then he and his wife could see Laïsha safely through until she could arrange to leave.

But there was one more quandary, and I could see that it had already begun to tarnish the luster of even such a plan as that involving Gonashi: I felt a true tenderness for this lady with whom I now slept, or, more accurately, with whom I now lay without sleeping.  I had no delusion that she, still to my mind of some higher breeding, would ever be drawn to desire a life with a peasant such as I, but already she appreciated me.  If it hadn’t been for the certainty that I would be discovered for my “crimes” I could have altered my plans in order to remain a devoted follower and subject of this lady through the coming years — to stay close by her here by Pinea and then wherever she might go to resume her noble way of life — for I now felt that her indulgence would be assured and I could envision enjoying her friendship for some years to come.

Wherever she might go, though, I could not yet imagine myself going also.  My aim was to travel to Greece.  Moreover, I could not suppose that over a period of years, as her friend and servant, I could keep from her the true events leading to her arrival with me.

When at last I noticed the approach of dawn I propped myself higher in order to peer into the room.  I expected that the glow from the stove should still illuminate the slumberers beside it.  But, as hard as I looked, I could see no lumps on the floor or on the stove.  Nor was there a figure on the bench beside the stove or the shorter one beside the door.

I studied the scene closely for some minutes and listened for sounds of the presence of others, but they were not there.

Apparently I had indeed fallen asleep, if only for a short time, and even before the hint of dawn they had departed.  I lowered myself back to the bed and whispered to Laïsha: “They’re gone.”

“I know it,” she replied with a pained whisper of her own.

I said inside myself: Then why are we whispering?

“I can move to my loft now,” I told Laïsha, and began to withdraw from the bed, but just then she rolled onto her left side and put an arm across my chest.  Together, therefore, we slept deeply until the sun was high.

<Table of Contents> <Seven> <Nine>  <People and Places>

Seven

The Sufferers and the Three Horsemen
Pinea

My house was large and built to last, in the style brought to nearby regions by the Varangian marauders of recent memory.  Lone houses, especially large ones such as mine, were not common in the woods.  What I lived in as these events were unfolding was the kind of fork-and-pole house more commonly found in a town, and then more commonly belonging to a magistrate or merchant.  Sadruk had inherited the house, though, from his father, who had built it on the prince’s supposition that a town would grow up around it, establishing an outpost halfway between Drizha and Pinea.  But princes come and go, and that’s all the people passing by did as well.  No town arose around it, even though so near the stream, and probably no prince since it was built has even known that it is there.

The method of construction calls for hard work, harder than many forest dwellers are willing to invest, but results in a sturdy, permanent home of any size that the builder wants to lay out.

First, the builder selects nine leafy trees, such as linden or ash.  The correct tree has a straight, tall, thick trunk that forks into two stout branches at the right height.  These trees are cut above the fork, to retain the fork — three taller than the other six — are then peeled, and finally are hauled to the house site.  Then nine holes are dug, three along a line that will define the front of the house, three for the taller forked trees down the center, and three more for the back.  The most common shape is a square of any size.  The tallest forked posts are hoisted upright and dropped into the center row of holes.  They are then leveled with their tops at the same height.

In my house, (Sadruk’s), the center posts were almost twice my own height.  The front posts, shorter than the center but high enough to permit entry once the wall is finished, are then set.  The remaining three posts for the back are placed last, and their length doesn’t matter, as long as they are of even height.  If a pigpen is needed behind the house, as on mine, then the back wall needs to be only high enough to accommodate such an addition.  A straight ridge pole of pine is then peeled, notched, and hoisted into the forks formed by the center row of posts.  Similarly, the front and back rows of forked posts are fitted with cross poles, parallel to the ridge.  What remains to complete the roof, then, is for the builder to crisscross this framework with closely-set sapling poles, to cover it with slabs of bark, repeating this layering several times, and to seal it with pine pitch.  The front wall of such a house is often buttressed by thick, forked tree trunks sunk into the ground at an angle to meet the eaves.  That way, the front wall cannot sag outward, and this lean-to framework in front can be covered with skins for extra sleeping quarters, if it is to be a common house, and can serve as a ramp to the roof.

The way Sadruk’s house was built, the earth dug from the holes and not needed to set the posts was spread under the roof.  As much additional loose earth as desired might then be hauled in, spread and smoothed, to raise the floor level above the surrounding forest floor.  This was then covered with straw, which was changed as often as the resident could obtain fresh material.

Since it was as long as four or five men lying toe to head and as wide as four as well, ours fit the description of a large house.  To finish a large house, the ubiquitous stove is constructed next.  For this, a skilled builder is needed.  Some of these stoves have a conical shape and an open front, but more often, as with mine, they are long and squared at the edges, and made of angular flat stones or sun-dried bricks or packed clay.  They have thick flat tops of broad stones, mudded for smoothness, and are open at one end.  Mine also had a thin, broad, flat rock which served as a stove door when slid across the opening.  The stoves can be vented to any type of opening — straight through the roof, which assures a leaky roof, or out the end walls of the house — which then makes a tall, teetering chimney unnecessary, or out the back, which permits a short chimney or none at all and provides warmth for livestock.  I have been in houses where the stove was simply vented into the room and the smoke drawn off by holes near the peak.  Sadruk’s stove was centered along the back wall, where it protruded from the back of the house half an arm’s length so that the smoke hole from the stove opened straight into the outside air.

The outside walls of such a house are normally finished with logs.  Sometimes a second row of posts (without forks) is set next to the front forked posts and smaller logs are stacked between these two close rows.  The same system may be used for the end and back walls.  Sadruk’s house had originally been done this way.  In other instances, walls may be constructed of sticks and mud, depending on the materials available.  Many years ago, before my arrival, Sadruk had replaced his outer walls and roof.  The house, as I left it finally, had the finest mud-and-stone walls with a proper door frame and a window with fitted boards to shutter it completely from the inside.  The window also had an inner curtain of layered felt.

The loft where I had made my bed while Sadruk and his son lived there, and which I once again occupied while my lady Laïsha was with me, was hung in one end of the house away from the stove, on beams notched into the forked posts of the center and one end.  It gave room to lie down on a mattress of pine needles, with space enough around to stack my personal possessions.  Cleats pegged into the center posts formed the ladder to the loft.

My house differed little in construction even from the houses of magistrates and princes.  Chiefly, those of the mighty were only larger, with numerous rooms and stoves.  A magistrate’s house would have stables, slaves perhaps, and more windows.  The house of a prince would include rug-covered flat earthen or fitted stone floors, wall rugs or tapestries, and oiled skins over the window openings.  The forked posts in a prince’s palace might be carved with hunting or battle scenes exaggerating the prince’s power and heritage, and would be stained and polished.  I often wondered whether I might try carving scenes into the center post of my house, but it always seemed to be something I could never find time to begin.

+ + +

It was a fresh spring day, which lasted long and filled both our hearts, Laïsha’s and mine, with hope of things to come, as well as hope of leaving other things behind.  The things I hoped for in both cases were probably unlike the things that occupied Laïsha, but nonetheless, she had a past to hide and healing to anticipate.

Throughout this day my lady Laïsha attempted to help me with small chores inside the house.  She spoke of wanting to make a pork pie, but this I discouraged just yet.  I proposed it as a goal for the following day, and she agreed.  Together we made some fresh biscuits of acorn meal, though, and she directed my sweeping out of the house, so that corners were now tidied that hadn’t been affected in years.  The floor would remain strawless for some months now.  I proposed that some days hence she should make roughly a circular path inside the house which she could walk each day for ever-lengthening periods.  This was a variation of my master’s method for strengthening an injured sufferer.

She rested often that day, too, and during these times I continued quietly packing for my own leave-taking.  The things with which I would travel I continued to keep in the loft, against any chance that she could find them and suspect my intentions.

Late in the day, when I returned from an unsuccessful fowl-hunt, I discovered a most extraordinary thing that she had done.  Obviously with great care, so as not to injure herself, she had singed away her dark and expressive eyebrows, had reddened her face with heat, and then had turned her face pale by rubbing it with white ashes.  Her eyelashes, too, she had virtually obliterated, and her visage had taken on that of a woman fifteen years older.  Her face still showed signs of bruises and scratches, although I had had no doubt that her former, muted beauty would return once those minor contusions healed.  She had fashioned a bowl-shaped cap for her head that resembled those worn by local women, and she had rudely shorn her long hair so that it fell only to her neck.

If she had gone away one day looking as she did originally, and had returned the next looking as she did now, I would not have believed, even if told, that she were the same woman.  The effect was startling.

She sat stitching a tear in my spare breeches, and when I came close enough to assure myself of her identity she lost her composure and began weeping softly.

“It is awful,” she said without looking at me.

“You saw?” I asked, meaning that she had looked at her reflection in the polished silver mirror that was with my medical equipment.

She nodded.

“Thus, you are now a crippled peasant woman whose name is Laïsha, and your past —” I didn’t know how to finish.

She nodded again.  Still she wept, and I sat beside her on the bed.  For a minute or two we stared together at the opposite wall, but then, with compassion for the untold burden she bore, I turned toward her and set aside the work from her hands and held her hands in mine.  That was all I did, and she permitted it.  I noticed, though, as I pressed her fingers between mine and felt her palms and fingertips, that hers were working hands.  They were larger than her body size might suggest.  They were calloused and hard, and a couple of her fingers had clearly been broken in the past.  We stared frankly each at the other’s face and I said nothing, nor did I look to see what my touch had discovered.  I pondered her secret and felt very tenderly toward her.  I understood, too, that her lament of a few days before, for having offended the god-protector of slaves and prisoners, might not have been a reference to her current “imprisonment” with me but to some status she had held in the past — maybe the very recent past.

It was a somber evening until we went to sleep that night.

On the seventh day we made a pork pie, and feasted heartily.  Despite her attempt to make herself hideous, which would have had the desired effect upon a stranger, I saw her as I had imagined her healed, and found myself desiring the day when she once again would look that way.  This was a difficult thought to bear, for at the same time I thought ahead toward her rejuvenation, I had no intention of being around her long enough to see it happen.

That day, and for the next two, we were visited by a progression of sufferers from Pinea and the nearby woods.  This could be expected after the long months of winter.  We would now see the results of the frostbite and other ailments that go with colder episodes of the season.  The snow was now all gone, and we had enjoyed a few days or parts of days which were warm and bright.  The forest floor began to assume a greenish cast to my hazy vision.  Mosses and leaves of small plants were beginning to show some life.

It had become imperative to both of us that Laïsha assume a real identity as a peasant, and so, from the moment the very first visitor arrived, I spontaneously introduced her as my wife, and she didn’t even give me a funny look.  This struck a couple of visitors as an oddity, since she appeared older than me, and since they had not known me lately to have had a woman in my heart.  But they also knew that anything can happen during a long winter, and for most people my foreign origins explained away my mystifying behaviors.

We were confident that Laïsha could safely claim to be from somewhere beyond Drizha, to the south, but I think no one dared ask, so it never became an issue.  Since she still hurt, her efforts to help me in my ministrations were feeble.  We would tell people only that she herself had been gravely ill but was recovering.

The variety of ailments presented was largely uninteresting, although Laïsha became absorbed in my attempt to straighten and splint crooked bones and sew wounds for a little boy who had fallen from a tree into a pig pen, seriously upsetting the pig.  She also took great pity upon a deranged old man with no teeth, who showed no sign of pain in his deadened right leg, which I declined to amputate, but which I was sure, from its blackened condition, would be the death of him within days.  I made him some sage brew that I knew would give him comfort, and we talked and talked — as if I were a sage myself! — and, with a heavy heart in my chest, I sent him away with his family, who bore him on a stretcher that they alternately carried and dragged.  As he left, his eyes seemed to tell me he understood.

If I had successfully removed his leg, which even Sadruk probably would have refused to attempt, he would have become the third brother in one family to hobble among the houses of Pinea on one stem.  The first of those brothers to have one amputated had met so ill a fate at the paws of Bugra-dezhu, the spirit-invoking shaman of Pinea, that the next two had come to Sadruk.  For unrelated reasons they too needed amputations, but under Sadruk’s care they survived.  I would confidently have relieved this one of the burden if he had come sooner, but I was so certain of his fate that I could foretell how my surgery would have been mistaken as the cause of death if I had tried it now.

Another man, nearly as young as I but carried to me on a litter, arrived with muscles in his back knotted in great lumps.  He was a road agent, as was I, and his section was that path which led into some low mountains west of Pinea.  He had spent most of the daylight hours of the previous few days cutting and dragging logs.  He was in severe pain but was so grateful to be in my house at last that he beamed a great smile through his tears.  Sadruk had a sack of a brownish-yellow powder, slung from a post near the stove, which he called mustardic and which he mixed with certain radish roots and softened bark, making a paste to apply to sore muscles.  I laid the young man on a bed of furs next to the stove and set his father and brother to rubbing such a paste into his back.  I left them working like this for much of the afternoon while I continued to see other sufferers.

For sore muscles, I reflected, Bugra-dezhu — who was not all evil but occasionally manifested some empathy for his sufferers — would have reached into a barrel of damp sand, produced a mandrake root, and would have carved it into the shape of a man or of that portion of a man which represented the injured area.  He would then instruct the family to massage not the sufferer, but the carved root!  I am proud that I have seldom been tempted to employ such artifice.

I had almost forgotten that they were there when the young sufferer finally sat up, cautiously put his feet beneath himself, and stood.  He still hurt but he could move.  I washed the fierce-smelling, burning residue from his back and felt for more knots, but he was ready, he said, to return home on foot.  They paid me in fleece and in wooden utensils they crafted themselves and went on their way.  As I closed the door behind them I realized that Laïsha had seen and studied the resolution of the young man’s problem and continued even now to stare at me with growing admiration for my skills.  She smiled at me demurely, and I blushed.

Laïsha was mostly interested in the women who came either to be treated or to accompany family members.  She studied their habits and their small talk.  They seemed to regard her with a mixture of suspicion and tolerance, but not at all with hostility.  I was sure that her frightening appearance, her slight accent, and the fact that she was an utter stranger made them wary if not rude.  I listened always to hear whether she spoke to anyone from Pinea about her missing Davnoy, but she seemed not to want to reveal that curiosity before any of them.  So I did, to reassure Laïsha that my false story was not false.  I chose a particularly unreliable-looking old man who’d come in with his ailing and daft wife, and asked him to take a message to the cartwright — a message that I sought word of the man who had come to him over a week past with a fancy carriage in need of repair.  The old man tried diligently to comprehend and memorize my message, and, once his wife had swallowed a bowlful of my stew, for she was mostly suffering from hunger, they went off, he repeating my message to her and she repeating it back to him.

And so it went.  There was a woman with a great swelling at the base of her neck.  I spent an hour treating a young hunter whose nose had frozen and decayed.  I was able carefully to scrape nearly all of it off, leaving him grotesquely defaced.  He had also lost some fingers and toes, but had generally healed well.  But he left still able to breathe and with no bleeding and was excited by my suggestion that the right craftsman could carve him a convincing covering.  There was a baby boy from Pinea, born that winter with paddles in place of hands, tempting me to slit the skin along lines where his fingers should have separated — Sadruk might have attempted it, first on the left hand, then, if that healed well, on the right — and I left the parents with the impression that Sadruk might just do so when he returned.

I think that the visits were very taxing for Laïsha, for by the end of the third day of it her cheer was gone, she sobbed once again from the pain, and her wound oozed a different kind of fluid.  I offered, on her behalf, to turn people away, in order to protect her, but until now she would not allow it.  By nightfall, though, she thought it would be wise.

The next day, her tenth with me, saw only one more such visitor, and she encouraged me to treat him anyway while she stayed in bed.  I too was exhausted by the work, but in exchange during these days we had obtained several spring grouse, sacks of meal, a quantity of iron, which I did not need, and a bolt of good linen.  One especially-appreciative old man, a carver of figurines and ornaments, walked back to our house a second day to deliver a decorated cover-with-handle for our chamber pot.  The image on the lid was lewd, but was done so well that to reject it on the grounds of taste would have been a waste of the giver’s talent.  Laïsha seemed less offended even than I.  The same man agreed to meet the hunter who had lost his nose.

Her eleventh day with me was quiet.  We each looked after our individual affairs and hardly exchanged a word.  Late in the day I wanted to reassure her again that her man would return, so I made a comment about patience.

“Patience!” Laïsha exclaimed.  “Patience!  I feel as though I’m made of patience, as if it were a substance from which statues are made, like marble or clay!”

I let it pass, and it did.

By her twelfth day, Laïsha was sewing for me and for herself from the new cloth, and was confidently predicting the coming day when she would draw a deep breath.  Her prediction changed as the day wore on and she with it, but still we had some fun over it.  By now it was clear that her spirits would sag every afternoon, and I adjusted my routines in order to do as little as possible that might annoy her past mid-day.

I felt that she had begun to worry less about the return of her Davnoy, or about the arrival of those who would seek him.  These latter people, unknown as they were to me, worried me un-mercifully, however.

I contrived, during these days, to learn her age — she thought she was just past her seventeenth year of age by now, for she had been born in the springtime — and she divulged also that she had some Khazar blood in her.  For this information I exchanged my age, the fact that I am a Dregovichian clansman from far to the north, and that I came to this region with a hunting party about five and a half years before.  I confided to her, as well, that my failing vision had caused my expulsion from that same hunting group when we were in the vicinity of Gonashi’s pasture, and I had been employed soon after by Sadruk, with the magistrate’s permission.

Sadruk, I also told her truthfully, had lost his wife of a fever, but I made it sound as if this had occurred not long before my appearance.  I did not mention that Sadruk had a son, about two years younger than my twenty or twenty-one years, now away in Greece.  I did not want to give her the advantage of hope in his impending return.

She claimed that on the morrow she would like to walk out-of-doors and look for doves and woodpeckers, and so, early that afternoon, we put our work aside, set a newly-made stew to simmer, and, before dusk, set about preparing for bed.

I was finishing my last chore of the dying day — gathering fuel for the stove from the pile in front of the house — when the air exploded with the sound of hooves and whinnies.  From the road three horsemen reared up.  While their tall, black, metal-adorned beasts pranced and blew steam, one dressed as a nobleman addressed me in a tongue more like my mother’s Baltic language than Sadruk’s Slavonic, yet a mixture of both: “Are you the physician spoken of by the shepherd Gonashi?”

I acknowledged that honor.

“We will have a word with you then,” he said, dropping elegantly to the ground.  A plain sword protruded beneath his long fur coat, and he wore a thick necklace of silver chain.

The other two were soldiers, but I could tell only that much from their garb, which included a close-fitting cap or helmet of burnished leather.  Or, if not soldiers, they were household guards.  They too dismounted and tied the three horses to a tree.

The nobleman entered the house unbidden, but I bowed to him stupidly anyway.  I barely squeezed in ahead of the guards, crushing my forehead against the lintel as I made haste.

<Table of Contents> <Six> <Eight> <People and Places>

Six

Laïsha and Davnoy
Kiev and Pinea

The lady ignored me for the rest of that morning following Turgey’s departure, except to complain of the cold or the heat or the light or the darkness.  But after noon, she reminded me of her intention to sit.  The sitting was utter torture for her, however, and we would not have attempted it at all were it not for the fact that I also had to get her to her feet, after a fashion, and help her to use the pot.

Back in her bed, my lady cried openly through the rest of that day.  During one outburst, she moaned that she had offended Obemyn-Chuv, who, strangely enough, I knew to be an eastern god and protector of slaves and prisoners.  From that I concluded that she regarded herself a prisoner in my home, which offended me a little.  She avoided any but the briefest conversation with me, and, even though we ate together, she ignored my other movements about the room.  I made use of the time to put my house in order.

Before she arrived to interrupt what had been truly an uninteresting existence, I had been making some preparations for a change in my life.  The delay she would cause might not be significant, I reasoned, but I felt I needed to carry on with my plans.  Chiefly, I intended to leave the master’s house and make my way to a city, any convenient city, somewhere in the south, preferably one where he had been known and where, with some luck for me, he might have spoken well of me also.  I would have been gone long before the carriage accident that brought this trouble upon me but for the flaw in me that, ever since my eyesight began to deteriorate, I have been a procrastinator, and so, by the time of the vernal equinox I was still not ready to depart.

I believed that I could explain to the local people the master’s absence only for so long.  Then they would become suspicious, although I could suggest that he had met trouble somewhere on his journey.  But people who are not vagabonds do not travel alone.  In fact, whereas most suppose the woods to be full of spirits and mysteries, seldom does anyone travel alone even on a day’s journey.

I am not so awed by the forest, having been a hunter and a student of my Uncle Zhukin.  Hunters venture away for a season, merchants for a time, and a few, like my master and like Gonashi, live out their lives in remote sylvan cottages, beyond the comprehension of most villagers, who, inscrutably to me, prefer to huddle in tiny huts or to forego all privacy and make a den inside a community house of from two to ten entire families.  (And some community houses, occupied by a dozen or more people, are no larger than the cottage I shared with Sadruk.)

Even so, if some tragedy truly had befallen Sadruk, word would reach Pinea eventually.  Yes, they would suspect me, because such word would never come.  And they would suspect the more because I was from a distant, northern region and not one whose honor was assured by familiar lineage.

So I gambled that there would be no immediate confrontation with the local people.  That could only come later.  It was, rather, the master’s son who made me uneasy.  He had gone to Greece, there to study medicine and mathematics.  He could easily suspend his studies and return for a visit in the early summer.  Or else, should he not be faring well in that austere seat of learning, he would have little choice but to return even sooner.  This confrontation I hastened to avoid.

I had determined to leave no word of my destination once I would finally leave, but to take what I could of my wares and strike out, like a wanderer.  I marveled, with my penchant for making inappropriate choices, that I had not become a brick maker.  Then, to travel and take my wares, I’d have had to fill my sack with brick samples.  In contrast, dried leaves, vials of rare oils, and small metal implements were light in weight.  Cooking pots were available wherever on my travels my services might be needed, and to replenish my supplies I would need to tarry somewhere only long enough to gather or distill or ferment some native ingredients.

I had left my narrow sleeping loft, which opened directly over the master’s bed, as it had been the day my master died, but now, with my lady sometimes watching but without interest, I climbed the cleats on the cottage’s center post and cleaned it out.  I burned much at the stove, and small things which I wished to keep I began loading into a kotomka, a birch-bark sack, which I retained in the loft.

I sharpened arrows late into the evening of my lady’s second day with me, and contemplated my pending departure.  Certainly I would stay until she was ready to fend for herself.  I was sure that I would eventually learn her name and origin, so I could, as one option, escort her to Pinea and, with her nobleman’s money, secure her a homeward passage.  That was not a good idea, though.  That would draw much attention my way, and surely she would learn from people in the village that no nobleman with a carriage in need of repair had ever arrived from my house.

I wondered, as well, whether she would be well enough to travel homeward by summer.  Often an injury such as hers left the sufferer a permanent cripple.  So my second thought was that I would simply nurse her to the condition that would allow her to tend to her own needs in this house, and then I would leave her here.  I wasn’t sure whether I would openly leave or secretly, but I could work that out later.

The next day she again arose, used the pot, and cleaned herself, with enough assistance from me that her humiliation was prolonged, although I encouraged her to try it alone.  From then on, though, she did manage alone and I took pains to assure her some privacy.

This day she insisted upon sitting up in bed for several hours.  She watched me replenish some of my more complicated medicines and listened as I explained their uses.

First there was ordinary soot, scraped from a certain part of the interior of the stove where it formed tight mounds of the finest, blackest powder.  In this form, steeped in water and the water drained and mixed with vinegar, it settled many cases of fever and jaundice.

Spread dry upon a narrow wound, this powder also assured rapid dissipation of the pain, so that sloughing and final healing could get under way more quickly.

Next, there was the hard black material resembling pottery shards that could be chipped from anywhere inside the stove.  This too could be steeped in a brew and the brown broth used as a substitute for weak urine in making poultices.

One of my favorites, and I used it often on myself, was capsicum — finely-ground dried pepper imported from the south.  Mixed with honey, thyme, and some coarse meal, this flummery has cured many sore throats and other complaints from deep in the chest.

The idea, as with numerous other remedies both for internal and external complaints, is that there is a quantity of pain that must be extracted from the area of an injury.  It may be a cut in the skin or a burn or a stomach ailment or an earache.  Certain preparations have been shown to hasten the release of all the pain to be extracted, thereby clearing the way for a quicker resolution.  With open wounds, such preparations could permit healing before blackening of the flesh sets in.  With internal fevers given to paroxysms, such a pain-releasing preparation causes the outbursts to come all together — violently, of course, and very painfully for a brief period.  But once past, the recovery is assuredly rapid.

The trick of it is to determine a minute quantity for every ailment, using the correct pain releasers, so that a release is realized, but not so great a release all at once that the sufferer’s body cannot tolerate the convulsions, or else death will follow.

All this time I dwelt in agitation concerning what treatment to use on the lady’s pain, which was both inside her body and on her skin.  I had already given her a flummery softened with spiræa.  I would gradually increase the capsicum until she could no longer tolerate its sensation in her mouth, and we would set the strength of the mixture by this test.  Thus her surcease of discomfort would be hastened.

As my lady watched, or dozed, sometimes deliriously, I finished the sad task of cataloging Sadruk’s medicines, combining his with my own, and augmenting my shelves with those he possessed but which I did not.  I had found a sack of vials, some labeled and some not, that I spent considerable time testing in order to determine their identity and efficacy.  Among these I discovered cypress, frankincense, parsley, anise, a minute quantity of laudanum, which suppresses suffering, powdered bodies of thousand-legged worms, and powders made from the aromatic bark of certain exotic trees.  These latter two have many uses in curing skin diseases, especially the nasty kinds that derive not from an injury but from their own insidious causes — rashes, creeping flesh, and tiny spreading blisters.  Sadruk was a pioneer of salves for treating what he called erisypelas, or skin irritations.

I drained the pig’s eyes of their eye water and set this aside for treating my lady’s sadness.  I ground some parts of insects that I had dried over the winter: ants’ tails, locusts’ heads, and whole dragonflies.  I also ground some dried bones to a powder, and also ground minute quantities of certain crystals: chiefly garnet and white rock, but also some tiny fragments in green, lavender, and pink.  Sadruk was fond of crystals, and while he accepted that princes should have the large ones for their vanity, he guarded the right of physicians to possess the smaller, poorer-quality stones for use in medicine.

+ + +

Before the end of this the third day, the lady again quizzed me about the man who had brought her here.  I answered plainly enough about his dress, the color of his hair, and described his sword and his boots.

“Tell me about his mannerisms and his voice,” she bade me.  “And how well did he speak your dialect?”  I sensed that, in spite of her constant and obvious discomfort, she was teasing me, and that she knew I was hiding behind a lie, but until now she had to be satisfied that I had met him, or else how could I have described him?

“How well did he speak it?  Impressively well!” I exclaimed.  “But you see, due to the hour and perhaps due as well to his worry over your condition, he made haste, and there was little I could learn from him.”

“What did he wear about his neck?” she asked with a serious expression.

I had to think.  “Nothing that I recall, Miss.”

“I cannot conceive that someone could have overlooked such a gaudy neck piece!” she said accusingly.

“I only know that I am an addled and insensitive person who cannot see well, but please, let me think on it.  I too cannot imagine how I missed it.”

Think!  How else?  He had lost his neck decoration in the accident, and I had either burned it with the debris, or it lay somewhere under the snow between the road and my brush pile.

Next morning I was out at first light.  I scraped first in the road itself, then began to tromp and sweep the snow from the path to my house.  This path I widened until it looked like an invitation to a Varangian horde.  And at last, of course, I found it.  It was a large medal, probably of solid silver, in an oblong shape, and clamped in its center was a large, clear, yellowish to grayish crystal resembling amethyst but for its color.  It would have hung from his neck by a leather thong, now missing except for a knot of leather that remained caught in a hole through the top of the ornament.

I returned to the house with my find, but could not place it with the nobleman’s other belongings in the lintel, since to do so would be to work right over my lady’s head.  Instead, I retreated to a corner and used the stub of a broken knife to pry at the stiff hooks gripping the rock in the center.  This pretty stone, if powdered, might prove to have some medicinal value of which I was yet unaware.  Nonchalantly I hid the silver portion in the bottom of a small clay pot that held other metals for use in my preparations, and the crystal I dropped into my jar of sorrel.

On the morning of this the fourth day the lady said that, since she now knew the extremity of her pain, for short periods she could tolerate it.  No more did she fear standing stooped, for example, for she knew it would hurt only so much and not more.  She longed for a deep breath, though, and proposed that we should roast a bird on the day that she would draw her first full and satisfying breath.  This became a joke for us, for while she raced to achieve that benchmark, I worried whether, with my weak eyes, I would be able to pierce a bird with an arrow in time for the celebration.

Late that morning I told her that the nobleman’s neck piece had indeed returned to my memory, and I described it approximately.  She said that I astounded her, and not by my brilliance but by my lapses of the same.

She wanted this day to study her wound, so I exposed it to view and explained the process I had gone through to repair it.  This impressed her, and so to impress her the more I powdered it with a mixture to draw out much of the residual pain.  She howled and twitched so that I feared I had accidentally overdone it.  From the crock where they were soaking I brought out some strips of the pig’s intestine then and stretched them over the wound.  She remained wide-eyed after the pain treatment’s effects subsided.  Then I bandaged it again, and at her insistence I helped her to wash herself, her hair as well, and to put on the gray dress.

By mid-day she was growing irritable once more, until sleep overtook her.  From time to time, awake or asleep, she would weep, grimace, stiffen in spasm, cough, and speak of tearing the bandage off in order to scratch.  She was convinced that there were insects in the bandage, which must be biting and causing the itching, but usually when we checked there were none.  And often she moaned: “If only I could draw a breath!”

The fifth day was a good one, this in spite of the fact that her wound opened a little.  I admitted to her that I didn’t know whether it would be better to sew it again or let it close on its own.  She examined it closely and regarded me critically and begged me not to sew it, and so we left it alone.

By this time she had begun to take an interest in her appearance.  I helped her pick scabs from her face, and I packed snow into a pouch for her to place against a slightly swollen cheekbone.  I found her a bristly piece of dried pig hide which I fastened around a piece of wood, and with this she could brush out her hair.  Since our relationship had permitted me regular scrutiny of her, she was not at all self-conscious whenever I looked at her long, as it had been necessary for me to do when tending her face.  In fact, she seemed boldly to present herself for my gaze, and I often found myself taking advantage of my license to study her frankly.  She sat before me now, prettying herself, although not necessarily for me, and I regarded her freely.

I had never before given thought to beauty.  While to me she was regal and elegant, I suspected that experts on beauty would not apply that description to this lady.  But she was totally feminine, and, as I contemplated her now, was also strikingly pretty, especially when she smiled.  And her smile revealed one of her charms, that being two top center teeth grown in at slightly different lengths.  She hadn’t smiled often in my presence, but because of her trauma I could forgive her for that.

Her brushed hair was wavy, nearly black, and although coarse, also shiny.  It was long enough in back to reach her shoulder blades, now that it was untangled.  I hadn’t often seen hair that long on a woman or on a man.  She had wide eyes of swamp-water green that flicked constantly over her surroundings.  Her cheekbones were high and may have been made more prominent by their bruises.  I was most fascinated with her eyebrows: dark and thick near her nose, tapering to ends that turned slightly upward and faded to points.  Her nose, as I often remarked inside myself, could boldly cleave the space before her and could have fit a much larger face.  And yet, where is there a beautiful face that isn’t made more attractive by a feature that is out of proportion to the rest?  I wondered whether her sense of smell were proportionally more acute.  I resolved to test this idea eventually, since I also have a large nose and seem to smell better than most other people can.  She had the look of a girl who was confident and wise, but also able to laugh and play, and yet truly not one to be crossed.

Against this observation of her I regarded myself as a modestly pleasant-looking man, strong and lithe, but clumsy and often unsure of myself in small matters.  My hair and beard are light brown and curly.  Both are kept short for ease of care.  I darken readily in the sun and retain the brownness well into the winter.  My shoulders are broad and I can puff out my chest to a considerable expanse.  In the presence of this lady I was acutely self-conscious about my eyesight, as I was in anyone else’s presence.  Many would assume me accursed to be deserving of such an affliction.  I knew that in prowess or agility, if not in grace, I was a match for most men, that I was also perceived as courteous with all, but for wits and charm most people might prefer the company of fleas.

After an indulgence of hair-grooming, interrupted by weak coughing and light gasping and occasional glances toward me, my lady laid down her things and boldly regarded me as I held my gaze on her.

Bluntly I said to her: “Today you must tell me your name.”

“If you do not know it, then I have no name.  You must give me a name.”

“Then I shall,” I agreed.  “But you have not asked me mine.”

My lady shrugged lightly, barely managed to say: “Your friend called you Kolyar or some such nonsense,” and then grimaced at the response from her aching, burning, itching, stabbing side.

I noticed her distress, but continued as on a mission.  “I am Kolyek, also called Kolyek-the-blind.  Yet, I am not blind, as you have observed, just sorely limited in what I can see at a distance.  You have heard me called Kolyei, and you would honor me to address me by that diminutive.”  I smiled at her, prepared for a response.  She appeared to roll her eyes and to shake her head almost imperceptibly, still stiffened by pain, which I boldly ignored.  After a moment’s pause, I went on: “I know.  I will call you Laïsha.  It is a name I have known and have remembered with great…” — I wanted to say “fondness,” but I feared that I would seem too affectionate — “…warmth.”

“Warmth?” said the lady in a derisive tone, but she followed the word with a short sigh as she looked at me squarely and braced for another surge of pain.

I ignored the brief sarcasm.  “But why will you not tell me the name you have already been given?”

“Perhaps I would forget my past,” she said quietly, turning away.  “And easily I could, but that he comes for me.”  She had been sitting up in bed again, but now, cautiously, she lowered her feet to the floor and talked with me while perched stiffly on the edge.

“But who comes?” I asked, hoping to trip her up for the nobleman’s name.

“I will tell you.  But if he did not tell you, then you must not repeat his name in his presence when he returns for me.  He detests familiarity in those beneath his station.”

“That is a promise I can make and keep,” I said with uncommon assurance.

“He is Davnoy.  He is nothing more than the son of Abru, a wealthy merchant of Sambatas or as you may know it, Dneprokiev, but he fails — to understand that he is only that and not a prince.”  She spoke with the pain that accompanied all of her speech, but this time it was haughty as well.

I was close to believing that she held the man in some disdain, but dared not proceed on that assumption.  And she herself apparently was not a daughter of this same wealthy merchant, or else she might well have said that Davnoy was yer brother.  Dneprokiev was a name I had heard, sometimes shortened as Kiev.  It was a large town, I knew, and on my migration southward with a party of hunters, some years before, I passed within a day’s journey of its gates, if it had gates.

“And why would you call me Laïsha?” she asked.

I thought of a girl I had known in my home village when I was young, a severely crippled girl with a twisted spine.  Even so, she was a joyful and stoic person, and I had played with her when very young, until her own pain had deprived her of that freedom.  When she died, at about ten years of age, slowly starved and tortured by her father and mother, I felt my first deep personal loss.  Her name had been Laïsha, and I had not known another by that name since.

I told my lady all of this, and added that it was my wish to invest in her the hope for recovery that could not have been possible for that crippled child.

Perhaps my explanation touched her in some way I did not anticipate, for after that she became more cooperative and less plaintive or demanding.

That evening she spoke of the time that had passed since her companion, Davnoy, had left to have his carriage fixed — five days.  “A half day’s journey by foot, three or four hours by carriage…” she pondered.  “He would be back by now, I am certain.”  She looked at me as if to ask for more information, for her look told me she was convinced that I knew more than I would tell.  But she fixed me with the look only for a moment.

“He’ll not be returning, then, will he?” she asked, more as a statement.  “Did he think me dead?  Did you — could you, the physician, possibly have persuaded him that I could not be kept alive?  Has he given me up to the gods?”

“My Lady, perhaps he would think you dead, but not due to my persuasion.  If he has drawn that conclusion and will not come for you, then we must send you to him once you can travel.  Indeed, in the meantime, we could send word.”  The more I spoke as if he had left my house alive, the more likely I might persuade even myself.

“Ha!”  She uttered it so loudly that I looked about the room to see whether someone else had provided the voice.

This was my opportunity to test her for the answer to another question that trouble me.  “If, I dread to think, some serious misfortune has befallen him alone, what then?”

“His family will seek him.  They will learn what has become of him.”  She looked at me steadily, and said: “If misfortune caught up with him near here, then they will be here some day to trace him.”

“And I will tell them of my encounter with him, and you will have your passage homeward.”

She shuddered slightly and then said: “If he does not return, then I am in your debt with no way to pay.  What then do you say?”

I wanted to end my lie that very moment, but my tongue stumbled on the first words of truth.  “My Lady, I have told you things — things that… that are as they are.  I must believe, just as you, that he will return and that I will be paid in some kind.  But if he does not come,” I smiled at her, “I have had the benefit of a new experience.”  Staring at me, she blushed quickly.  “For I have never… ah, treated a wound such as yours.  Therefore I am in your debt, since you have aided me.  I perceive, also, that you will not be an idle sufferer under my care.  Let us leave the account at that for now.”

Laïsha paused.  “Then let me sleep upon the straw — on the floor and return your bed to you, and let me tend some small chores.  I might not have chosen — to become your burden, but you are so accommodating that I could be tempted — to use your hospitality to unfair advantage.  Others must do that to you.”

I declined to exchange sleeping arrangements just yet, and busied myself with small tasks in the house.  My mind was busy too, and so I could not initiate small talk.  My lady occupied herself with her person and clothing, and eventually lay back to rest.  Presently she began to speak of something, but cut herself short and dismissed my attention before I understood the subject.

Maybe owing to her discomfort, or else because we were, after all, truly strangers, or because I was not high-born as she, or for some other reason, she did not go on at the mouth as many women do.  Even though I welcomed her conversation and was warmed by her interest and familiarity, even by her mild insults, I was grateful for her usual silence.  For it seems a form of thought control that some women exercise over men: They speak incessantly; words flow and flow.  Surely they cannot also think at the same time, so they must be thinking aloud.  And a man must suspend his thoughts in order to listen.  So a man who talks little, joined with a woman who talks much, is forced to think her thoughts most of the time and she none of his.  If he listens to his thoughts instead, he misses what the woman is saying, and that may not be wise.  If he puts words to all his thoughts, as does she, then there would probably not be enough time in a day for both of them to think, silently or aloud.  I did not have a wife, and Sadruk’s had died in a long-ago blizzard, so my mother was the last woman with whom I had lived.  Since then I had observed it long and often among the women who accompanied their men to Sadruk and me for healing.

After a while I saw that my lady was watching me.  “I know nothing of your journey,” I said as cheerfully as I could broach conversation.  I let it sound as if I were frankly curious.

“Yet you knew we had not come by way of Pinea, for you say you had to give Davnoy directions to the village.  Therefore…” she paused to allow me to answer.

“Therefore you would have left Drizha, to our southwest and on the edge of the steppe, on the morning of the day before your accident.  And your Davnoy knew of Pinea.  I merely had to tell him where to find the cartwright.  You yourself have told me that you did not come from the direction of Pinea.”  Of course, I knew they had come by way of Drizha, because I had seen the direction in which the carriage was traveling.  “But you are from Dneprokiev, so Drizha was only a stopping point on your return journey from somewhere distant.”

“You are good at drawing conclusions.  That is called logic, am I right?”

I nodded, but she was having some amusement at my expense.  I did not deny her the pleasure, for I wished her spirit to be strengthened as an aid to her healing.

“But I do not come from Dneprokiev, until lately, nor from Drizha except in passing.”

“You would mystify me, but I will not be mystified,” I said to her with a smile, but mystify me she did a little, and I think she knew it.

On the morning of the sixth day I was awakened, where I lay in my loft wrapped in my cloak, by the roaring of the stove fire and the heat that it sent aloft.  I peered below.  My lady, Laïsha, as I would try now to call her, was stooped by the blaze and into it was stuffing the remaining rich clothes taken from her battered trunk.

I rushed to interfere with this madness.

“Burn the rest, please,” she asked simply, as I began to re-pack the trunk.  She looked at me firmly, face-to-face and close-up while I returned her gaze with, I am sure, an expression of utter stupidity.  “Please.”  Her eyes welled with tears and her voice weakened.  She turned to shuffle back to the bed.  I took her arm and steadied her, but she resisted receiving any assistance.

“All… all of this?” I asked tentatively, returning to the fire.

She nodded.  “The trunk also,” she assured me.

I dragged the tousled box to the stove and hesitantly continued feeding things to the fire.  My lady was watching, so I worked at a more natural pace, broke the box into bits, and soon it was all gone.

“If young Davnoy has disappeared without a trace, then so also must I,” she explained after I had finished.  I waited, but she would say no more.

As the day wore on her cheerfulness of the day before returned.  The sun was brilliant, for the first time since her arrival, and we spent much of the day with the shuttering boards opened at the front of the house to admit the bright light, the spring-greeting insects, and the cool air loaded with the raw earthen fragrances of an approaching growing season.

When we checked her wound, I was able to predict a good recovery of the flesh.  The pig-gut covering was loose where it should be and tight where it should be.  Some stitches near the ends of her cut were already disintegrating, leaving the skin closed.  In the center, the aggravation of the day before seemed minor.  Of her ribs and the damage they bore, I could make no prediction of recovery.  We physicians do not know which bones can be healed and which cannot, and the ribs, or parts of them, are not always thought of as true bones because they are not connected to others.  She explored her wound with her fingers, and at last she shrugged.  “You have treated me well,” she reassured me once again.  “I will breath and move freely again one day.”

Outside, the snow was shrinking away from rocks and tree trunks, and there were many bare and muddy or wet and icy places.

“A good day for travel,” I said as we were eating.  “Perhaps, My Lady, your Davnoy comes for you today.”  It was ridiculous of me to talk that way, but I enjoyed the pace of her recovery and wanted to encourage it any way I could.

“It would be well for you to use the name you wished to give me,” she suggested.

“Perhaps he has not disappeared, and therefore you need not do so.”

“I would like to explain some things to you,” she told me.  “But as yet I cannot.  First, I must know what has happened to him.  I know he would not leave me here if he knew I were alive, even if I were near death.  If you did not pronounce me dead, then, as difficult as it is for me to believe he left me here, I must believe more strongly that he will return.”

I was listening, but she paused to work at her biscuit.

Then she went on, and I began to understand: “If he has not returned to Dneprokiev by now, or even some days ago, then soon he will be sought.  Someone will be here, of this you can be sure.”  I understood that she was keeping a secret and that it was causing her some distress.  We were both pensive.

<Table of Contents> <Five> <Seven> <People and Places>

Five

Gonashi and Turgey
Pinea

Dusk was fast approaching and snow still lightly falling when I awoke from a pounding in my dream to a pounding upon my door.  While I slept, my lady had succeeded in turning her body somewhat onto its left side.  The blanket was raised enough for me to see that she had also succeeded in hoisting the undergarment roughly to her waist.  She was emitting a low wail which I considered to be an attempt to wake me.

I seized my cap and ever-present ax and burst out the door as if bent upon obtaining some firewood.  This way I could save inviting my visitor inside just to determine his business.

My neighbor Gonashi, the poor shepherd who lived at the river crossing two hours or so toward the village, Pinea, stood before me as a supplicant, and with him a youth — his oldest son, Stallo.  By a rein the youth held the bob-tail mare.

“My friend, Gonashi!” I greeted him and we bowed to one another.  “How well to see you!”

“My son and I have found this horse.”  As if I might not have seen it, Gonashi waved his arm behind him to indicate the beast.  After a pause he explained further, since I remained silent: “We are come to return it to its owner, and we thought that it might belong to your master.”

“I wish it were ours, oh Friend, but it is not, nor is it one I have seen before.”  (How boldly I lied!)  Gonashi was no threat to my safety, but I needed to maintain a consistent fabrication with everyone I might meet.

“I see,” Gonashi said, and hung his head.

I waited, for a moment, then invited them inside for a cup of stew.  “I have a sufferer, very ill, and my master is still away, but I am sure you could join me for a rest or until morning.”  I was confident that they would decline, but it was not a great risk even if they stayed.

“Thank you, Friend Kolyei,” Gonashi replied, “but we have only set out at mid-day and have traveled but little.  Clearly we will go many stadia before we have found this mare’s owner.  We are prepared to travel.”

I considered what this honest man would go through to look for the non-existent owner, and what he would be forced to do when he would give up the search.  I thought about his pastures, mushy with thawing ground water, the crusts of snow perforated with sprouting crocuses intent upon driving winter away.  I thought about lambing, and pregnant ewes getting stuck in the mud along the river’s edge.  I loved this quiet man, who humbly provided Sadruk and me with fresh sheep parts and products for our medicine stocks and asked nothing for them: gonads, eyes, and bladders, the oil of boiled lambs’ wool, and the fat scraped from the skin.  Gonashi was not the rough, arrogant gospodar that I was accustomed to in a sheep owner.  Nor was he timid or weak.  He was simple, clear-eyed, sincere, and a very hard worker.

“Friend Gonashi, I think you would be justified even now to turn this horse over to the magistrate.  He would understand.  You cannot afford to be gone from your tasks for so long as it may take to find this horse’s home.  You are required only to make a search, and I can avow that you have done that.  You are not required to search until you find.  Perhaps this is the horse of one who —” I paused, lowering my voice, for I had warmed to my speech “— of one who has had an unfortunate accident, or perhaps it was set loose for being mean-tempered.”

“You are wise, Friend Kolyei.  My compliments to your master.  We will continue to search for a while, but I will not neglect my family.  We will go.”

I watched them move away under the pair of giant pines that sheltered my short path to the road.  Then, to relieve the heaviness I felt at seeing them thus occupied at my indiscretion, I called after them: “If the magistrate wishes to find a home for such a fine beast, you may tell him that I am willing to be its owner!”

“And I, too!” Gonashi called back.  “But of course, I cannot!”  It was true.  One who found an item of worth and who turned it in to the magistrate could not request to claim the same item.  This was to prevent lawful stealing.

And I truly did not want the horse!  First, I was not prepared to shelter and feed such a beast, and second, I could not take the chance of having it around where my lady, upon sufficient recovery, might see and recognize it, not to mention others familiar with the dead man.  “Friend Gonashi!” I called at last.  “If the magistrate will give it to me, I will surely repay you!”  I hoped my phony sincerity didn’t show.

“You are a friend,” Gonashi called back, and waved good-bye.

Inside, I bent over my lady in order to see her face.  Although her eyes were large and bright and by daylight I could have seen them open from anywhere in the house, in the rapidly advancing darkness, and with my flawed vision, I needed to peer closely.  My presence startled her, but then slowly she turned flat onto her back again.

“More food?” I asked.

She declined with a shake of the head, and again I pitied her look of pain and nausea.

“Can I make you more comfortable?”

Again she declined.

“Can we talk, then?” I suggested.

After a pause she assented.  “I don’t believe he — would have left me,” she whispered.  “He doesn’t know these parts.  We have only just entered — these woods from the south.  Where could he have gone?  Did he say — how soon he — would return?”

I hadn’t thought of that, so I busied myself with feeding the fire.  By then I could respond: “There was a problem with the cart, and he wanted to get it repaired as quickly as possible.  Whereas I am a physician, I have not the means to offer carriage repairs, so I directed him to the near village of Pinea, a half-day’s journey by foot, therefore much shorter by horse.”

“I believe he would have stayed,” she repeated, no longer resorting to whispers.

After a moment she asked: “What sort of horse — did your friend find?”

I answered half truthfully: “A shaggy, bob-tail, tarpan mare that looks like those to be found in the west, I’d say.”

Then she asked: “Who is your master?”

“The physician who owns this house, and who has been my teacher, is Sadruk, of Pinea.”  I spoke fondly of him, as indeed I was, or had been until he died at my hand.  I pulled a bench from beside the stove to the edge of the bed, and I sat.

Hoarsely, she pressed on: “And he is away, you say.”  She had overheard my whole conversation with Gonashi the shepherd.  That was all right for the most part, for soon she would have to know more about me and about her surroundings.

“He travels to Bulgária, near Greece, to learn, sometimes to teach, and to bring back new medicines.”  Truly Sadruk had done just that a few times in the past.  He had gone there twice since I’d been with him, always attaching himself to a party of others leaving from Drizha, the village to our south.  Most recently he had gone in order to learn the ways of diagnosing disease by the study of the sufferer’s urine.  He had been in the process of teaching me about this very subject when he died.  For days he had been gnawing on tough bearberry leaves.  The effect was to turn his urine bright green.  If a person were suffering from a urinary ailment, Sadruk was telling me, the bearberry leaves would have made the urine brown.  But what to do for the ailment — that was lost to me when Sadruk suddenly died.  My notes, inscribed several days later, also say that the bearberry can be made into a tea, but to what purpose I still don’t know.  That is a secret of the Greeks.  Sadruk would have traveled there many more times, and I might soon have been asked to go along.

Occasionally while we talked my lady stiffened with spasm, a new development, and one which I hoped she would not ask me to explain.

“I suppose you know my name, and some things about me?” my lady challenged presently, turning slowly onto her back in order to face me.  The movement made her wince until she was settled again.  I didn’t offer to help but sat close at hand and watched stupidly.

“Your name!” I replied cheerily.  “Well, that’s interesting, because I completely neglected to inquire for that information.  Why don’t you tell me who you are, so that I may address you properly?”

“And I suppose that you know not who it was that left me here?”

“That too I did not ask.”

The lady paused to gather some force for her next pronouncement: “You may be — a physician,” she groaned, “but you are also a fool.  A fool for — not asking, or a fool for believing — that I would accept no explanation for your lapse in not asking.”

The truth, so plainly stated — that I was a fool — stung me a little, coming from so fine a woman as she.  But I could forgive her, out of pity if for no other reason.  “Your husband said —”

“My husband?” she interrupted hoarsely, then gritted her teeth for another spasm.

“He referred to you as his wife,” I lied, losing my confidence.

“He would not have done that,” she said, relaxing again into the bed.

I sat silently beside her, trying to maintain an air of innocence, and struggled with a lump in my throat.

“I am sorry,” she told me at last.  “You are — not to blame, and you obviously have — no knowledge of me.”  At this she laughed bitterly and strangely, suffering as she did so.  “I shouldn’t actually say — you have no knowledge of me.  Perhaps better to say you — know nothing about me.  If you were told it, or out of kindness you have concluded — that he and I are married, that is not your fault.  You are a good care giver.”

“Thank you, Madam,” I said humbly.

“I am not a ‘Madam,’ I am a ‘Miss.’”

“And you are right in one thing,” I told her sincerely, “but I make no excuses for it: I am a fool, and not only since you arrived.”

“I am hungry, if you please,” she said, changing her mind about my offer of more food.  “And I hurt greatly.”

I brought her broth with morsels of solid meat and dried beets in it this time, my best hardwood spoon, and a hard biscuit to gnaw.  I dined with her and ate very slowly, since she needed a great deal of time and much help to consume anything.

I still had to know what she knew of the accident, so I hit upon Yomo, the sow.  “I butchered a pig last night, you know,” I ventured, “so that you might have some good meat.”

“Surely not only for me.”

“Well, for me, too.  And for your companion, when he returns.  You might have seen this pig when you arrived.  She was not well-fattened.”

“I saw no pig.  I saw nothing when I arrived.  I know only that I was greatly…” she adjusted her position “…fatigued in that carriage, trying to sleep while — being tossed about on your horrible road, and then — the thing was tumbling like a thrown stone.”

I believed her.  Patiently I held her stew before her as she paused for long spells between mouthfuls.

But, my horrible road!  Indeed, it was my road.  It was part of the bargain by which the magistrate of Pinea, elected by the mir to be starosta as well as Prince Askold’s ruler in this part of the volost, allowed me to stay in his district.  For, as is the case with any woodland resident, Sadruk was responsible to maintain a clear path for half the distance to his nearest neighbor in each direction.  But this was a job the older physician did poorly, preoccupied as he always had been with his science.  I was assigned the job, a masterful stroke for the magistrate, (for I believed that I did it very well).  I introduced to him and to the region my own idea for improving the road system, and yet not my own thought but the method invented by the prince of my northern homeland.  We laid straight, long poles of evergreen at the center of the path, all the way to the next citizen’s boundary of responsibility.  Once laid, the poles marked the road so that it would not be lost in the rush of springtime growth, and these poles had to be replaced only infrequently, as when some traveler burned one for fuel or cut it up for wagon parts.

For a traveler on foot the poles made handy spans across streams and mud.  An agile traveler could traverse a distance of pole road very quickly, since he could avoid snares of tree roots and undergrowth.  Depending how they were harnessed and depending whether drawn by men or by beasts, carriages and carts could straddle the poles and find the packed wheel tracks on either side — or ruts where these were unavoidable.  And ambitious drivers of carts could “borrow” the poles near a deeper stream, lash them end to end, lay two sets side by side, and lay shorter logs across the pair to form a solid bridge wide enough for the vehicle.  I always tried to provide a stack of poles near river and stream crossings for this purpose, thereby not to lose the ones meant to mark the road itself.

I knew that I maintained my part of the road better than anyone else from Pinea to Drizha, so the lady’s complaint about the path cut me like a sharp stone to the ankle.

I must have reflected on these thoughts for as long as it has taken to write them, for when I next regarded the young woman, she had finished the cup of stew that I was spooning into her and was saying: “I am wracked with pain, and I know I must sleep.”

I made her a fixative of flummery strongly laced with acid of spiræa and told her she must swallow two mouthfuls.  “This would ease your aching if you were less sorely injured,” I said.  “In your present circumstances I can say only that it will help, but I can promise no total relief from pain.”  I had to feed her the pasty substance, but she seemed eager for any abatement of her agony.

“It needs salt,” she commented in an advisory tone.  “Tomorrow I shall sit, with your assistance,” she announced when she’d finished, “and the next day you will help me to my feet.”

I wanted to protest, but reluctantly I agreed to cooperate in her plan.  As I watched, she closed her eyes, turned her head, and panted lightly.  I let her sleep.

+ + +

I was up early to do some chores which I took some delight in attending.  I added to the stew, still at simmer on the stove.  I aired the room of smoke and then went onto the roof to retrieve some meat.  Yomo’s carcass, cut up and wrapped, was at one end of the roof so that it not be confused with Sadruk’s stored slave organs.  As I sawed at a pork bone with a dull blade I paid no attention to the world around, so when Turgey shouted a greeting from only an arm’s length beyond my dangling feet, he startled me, and I fell off the roof.

The freeloader stepped aside, not even attempting to break my fall, but I was able to sit on my sore tail and laugh with him.  His cloak in shreds and patches, he was still, somehow, the picture of vagabond dignity.  A missing tooth gave his grin a peculiarly personal edge, and the elaborate bindings on his feet gave his costume a look of palace importance.

“When I found you absent, and Sadruk also, I was tempted to join the lady in the master’s bed!” Turgey confessed as I struggled to rise.

“You can’t imagine how much you’d have regretted such an act,” I said as I hoisted myself to a hunched erectness.

“You realize, of course, that I must take my pleasure wherever I can find it,” Turgey grinned down at me.  Each time I saw him I was once again struck by his towering height, and I almost lamented that he could have been a guard for the Prince or a man of high authority, given his imposing presence.

I straightened and dismissed these pointless thoughts, which could only humiliate him.  I led him slowly to the front of the house.  He had already peeked inside, so I bowed to him at the door and invited him in for a meal and conversation.  “What were you doing on the roof, Friend?” Turgey was asking as I passed under the lintel.

So I turned and told him, matter-of-factly, that there were two piles of meat on the roof: that which Yomo had bestowed upon us, for which I thanked him directly, and some organs and other portions from a couple of dead slaves, which gruesome by-product of death Sadruk had secured there in the fall.  “What news do you bring?” I then asked.

Turgey barely waited for the invitation before he ducked under the lintel and strode into the warm chamber.  “Oh, Kolyei, the greatest news.  Yes, the greatest news!” he exclaimed, spinning around with his face uplifted and his arms raised.

I stared at him with frank skepticism.  There were few people in the world who made me feel superior, and I liked to show him that he was one of those whom I looked upon with good-natured contempt.  In fact, it was this relationship, which he also accepted, that made me welcome his ill-timed visit.  “What is the news, Friend Turgey?”

“Kolyei, it’s wonderful!  I’ve been keeping careful watch on the length of daylight, and it’s increasing once more!  The gods of light are once again pushing back the armies of the gods of darkness!  We shall have longer days once more.  Even now the length of day surely exceeds the length of night!”

I ladled some stew into a large, shallow bowl from which we could both spoon our breakfast.  I also took from a post a pouch containing two fists of dried berries that I knew my guest would appreciate, and sat it before us.  I cringed to realize that I was probably surrendering my entire remaining stock of such fruit, for I brewed many remedies and drinks from them.  Turgey sucked and slurped and munched and splashed, and consumed the entire portion of dried berries.  After I had eaten a little I stared at the man as we sat together on my bench.  I watched him drip the heavy broth freely into his beard, and I knew that for the remainder of his visit, after our bowl was licked dry, I would watch him suck on tufts of the matted hair in order to glean the flavor and crumbs from it.

At last I spoke: “What you’re witnessing is the change of seasons, Turgey.  Haven’t you heard of the seasons?”

“A plausible explanation, Kolyei, but every few years spring does not come.  Besides, where do seasons come from?  The gods must control them!”

“When did spring not come, Turgey?”

“A few years past, My Friend.  It was late autumn, and I was traveling far beyond the north shore of the Sea of Balta, and I was forced to stop in a very unfriendly village.  There was a trained bear that had its own house, and they made me live with the bear.”

(I peeked around Turgey and squinted at my lady, lying close by, as his story became more and more preposterous.  I caught her glaring at Turgey’s back through the slits of her eyelids, pretending to sleep, but challenging me to know that she was offended.)

My guest prattled on: “Even though it was only autumn, the snow came suddenly and stayed, and I could go no farther.  The people of this town could not speak a real language.  They only jabbered in strange syllables, and so they were very unfriendly.  So I had only the bear’s own house for my shelter.  The snow was so deep that neither the bear nor I ventured outside even to loose our bowels…”

“Even the bear held it all winter?”

Turgey feigned pain at the insult to his honesty.  But he wouldn’t be stopped, and I counted on that fact.  I wished the lady to hear this tale as well, for I hoped his sincere absurdity would amuse her.

I wanted to ask him what they ate.  If neither went outside, where did they get food?  Why didn’t the bear remain asleep, as I knew bears would ordinarily do?

“The snow piled deeper and deeper, and the nights became longer and longer until there was virtually no daylight at all.  And then it remained that way for weeks upon weeks.  Twice I was able to crawl out through the roof and find other people atop the snow, who gave me little bits of food and fuel in the frigid darkness.  I asked them what was happening, and all pretended that this was quite normal.  So I was forced to nibble crumbs and to hoard fuel that I could not light and to huddle inside that little house with the stinking, unfriendly bear.”

“Didn’t the bear sleep away the winter?” I had to ask.

“Of course it did, My Friend, but it awoke briefly every few days and snarled at the unending darkness.  Months went by, and eventually I could stand it no more.  So one dark morning, I crawled out again and, with wide planks strapped to my feet, I raced toward the south for days without stopping.  Still, the daylight didn’t come more than a couple of hours a day.  And then, in a town on the south shore of the sea, I met some travelers who were as bewildered by the phenomenon as I, for they had just come from the west, and reported that they had already seen crops in bloom and warblers in the trees.

“I told them, of course, of my experience to the north.  They thanked me for warning them against proceeding farther, and they rewarded me with this fine silver dagger, which I have carried ever since.”

Turgey handed me the knife, and I admired it well, turning it over and over in my hands.  When had this adventure taken place?  Before I first met Turgey, perhaps?  And only now he showed me this great dagger?

“It’s yours, Friend Kolyei,” he declared.

I thought about the sword and the money that I already possessed, which had belonged to my lady’s nobleman.  So I refused Turgey’s gift, gently but firmly, and asked him what I could do for him that he would be so generous with his knife-of-good-fortune.

“I need some oil of fliskouni, Friend Physician.  I have found it useful in treating this boil that threatens to rot my nose right off my face.  Our friend and your master, Sadruk-the-physician, first treated me with it.”  Turgey’s left cheek was an open sore, weeping yellowish clear fluid which formed a crust at the edges.

I produced a clay flask of the oil he requested, my last quantity of it, but I knew that I would be able to replace it in a few months, once the herbs in the forest yielded their new growth.

“This isn’t all you wanted of me, is it,” I stated openly.

“I have something else which I had also hoped to leave behind with you,” he admitted quietly.  But then he turned to study the lady’s slight form on the bed, covered as it was with furs.

“That is a sufferer in my charge,” I explained frankly, “a stranger in this forest, who was injured and left in my care.  She is sorely wounded and how long I shall tend her I don’t know.”

“And your master?” he asked.

“Gone for a considerable time,” I said truthfully, because forever is a considerable time.  “Just what else was it you wanted us to have, Friend Turgey?”  Had the trained bear fallen in love with him and followed him here?  Did he have a wagon-load of silver daggers he’d stolen from a vendor?  A corpse, perhaps?

“A nine-year-old girl,” Turgey said sheepishly.

“Where is she now?” I asked him with alarm.

“Safe.  Quite safe right now.  You see, I was forced to remain in a town called Riga for many weeks, mistaken for a cripple that had run away from the town.  Of course, I am no cripple, but that was the point; they thought that I had hobbled away and found a magician to heal me in the evil arts, and had then returned.  So they put me to work in the stables of the magistrate.  Hard work, Friend Kolyei!  Riga is a very large town, and the magistrate has many horses!  The few times I tried to speak with the magistrate and explain that I was a learned and worthy fellow just as he was, he had me whipped!

“They said that I had begged from everyone all my life and had never worked for my swill, and now I must repay the debt.  Well, there was no debt to repay, for I was not their man!  So, by the time I could escape from the injustice, I calculated that the town owed me a considerable debt.  And so, I took the magistrate’s young daughter, to carry my things and to keep me company.

“Let me tell you: It was a bad idea.  Now this is all true, I promise under the name of Shonsak.  I see your look of amusement!  Kolyei, I expected some resistance from the child.  But no!  She has clung to me like a louse.  She talks without ceasing!  She berates me constantly.  She believes none of my stories, and yet she begs me to tell them to her again and again.

“I waited in an area near the convergence of two rivers, hoping that someone would come from Riga to find her.  I have even abandoned her along the way a few times, but she is swift as a doe, and crafty, and cheerfully she catches up to me in a few days.”

“Where is she now?” I asked.

“She is with your neighbor by the river, the shepherd Gonashi.  She knows by now that I can’t evade her, so she made no protest to my coming farther to see my friends, the physicians.  Gonashi assured her that you live nearby.”

“She is undefiled?” I asked, without knowing why it mattered.

“Kolyei!  You dishonor me!  She is a child, although a fat one who will make a healthy and desirable woman.  I admit, I had thought what she might mean to me if I kept her for a few years.  But you know me.  I can plot ahead, but I am easily diverted, so no plan is ever carried out.  At least I know that about myself.  I didn’t know five days ago that I would be seeing you this soon again!”

I thought of my vulnerability, my sufferer, my crimes, my short life and long future.  Turgey was always flirting with disaster.  Any wanderer is suspect wherever he goes, and Turgey thrived on this notoriety and suspicion.  I, on the other hand, have survived by being inconspicuous and deliberate, even hesitant and indecisive.

“I see your problem, Friend Turgey,” I replied.  “But you can see by my circumstances that another belly to fill and another mouth to make noise is not what I need.”

We sat silent for a moment, and then I added: “Besides, Turgey, why haven’t you simply taken her back to Riga yourself?”

My visitor gazed at me with big, sad eyes.  I read in them that the entire story of the girl’s origin was untrue.  I wanted to ask for the true story, but I knew that he would simply fabricate another fantasy.

He understood.

“It’s true that I can’t escape her,” Turgey said, staring off into the room and twining part of his beard into the side of his mouth.  “But you’re right to refuse to take her.  In fact, she’s not a girl, but a boy of about nine.  A very fair child, and I hoped you’d accept and I’d be gone before you’d find out that he wasn’t a girl after all.  Then, some years later I would return and you’d accuse me of tricking you, and I’d assure you that all along I thought he was a girl.  Oh, well.  You’re too good a friend to be treated that way by the likes of me.”

I had to ask: “So, did you know he wasn’t a girl when you took him from his home?”

Turgey gave an ironic smile.  “If I told you that he followed me, that I didn’t steal him as I had said, would you believe me?”

“What difference would it make, My Friend?  No matter what you tell, I’m always greatly entertained.  And isn’t that what you’re about, anyway?”

“You’re right.  I don’t know why I come here, because I can’t hustle you or your master.  But maybe that’s why I like you: You help me find my true identity once in a great while, and I can know that beneath all that I am not, there is someone that is who I am.”

To my surprise, Turgey’s eyes reddened and he produced a few brief tears.  We stood and hugged, and I knew that presently he would regain his composure, his deliberate self-delusion, and his walk in life.  I also knew that he wouldn’t linger as a guest.  The self-examination was too constant.  We stood outside in the cold mist for many more minutes, talking about little things, as if he were the man of means that he sometimes purported to be, pausing on his journey to pass the time with this country physician.  I made him a gift of some more food, bundled tightly for easy carrying.  No sooner had he departed than I missed his company and wanted to run after him and ask him and the boy to stay.

But I resisted, out of indecision.

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